Two Cathedrals: the contrasting rhetoric of Obama and Romney

Nicky Woolf reports from two very different events in north-west Ohio

U2, inescapable at Democrat events, plays over the public address system at the basketball arena at Bowling Green State University, north Ohio. The crowd – there are more than five thousand people here – is young, diverse, and when Obama steps out, visibly starstruck. He is slighter than he appears on television, but when he speaks you find you already know the voice from a thousand newscasts and YouTube clips. He is at home here; he grows behind the podium, speaking with the cadence of a preacher, building rhetorical castles in the air, winding the audience up to a climax of fervour. They respond with adulation. “Try to bend your knees,” he says to those standing. “We've had some people faint before...”

Julian Gillilan, a music student at BGSU, is here because the President “is for college students, and minority groups. He's on our side.” His friend Tristan Saffron-Cottrell, who has a shock of blond-tipped hair, is studying graphic design. He is for Obama because “I believe in the same rights and beliefs, pro-gay marriage, pro-choice. I take these things strongly to heart. Lots of [us] students are more democratic, and because we're a younger crowd, we believe in rights.”

And Romney? “He's a dumbass. I think government should be more open to things he's not – like abortion rights, anti-gun policies...” he pauses, looks suddenly shy. “And I don't think the government has a right to tell anyone who they are allowed to love.”

Morgan Palmucci, studying Spanish language education here, is worried about her college loans. “[Obama]'s standing up for everyone's basic right to go to college. He's fighting to make it affordable, to give everyone a chance.”

But the crowd is not just composed of die-hard fans. Allan Rubenstein, a 19-year-old visual communications technology student, says he hasn't yet made his mind up. He has come here to see what the president has to say. I ask what he wants to hear. “I don't know. Answers. I have an open mind: I'll see what he has to offer.”


In a way, Obama and Romney are each preaching from the other's pulpit today. Bowling Green may have a large student population, but it is the county seat of a relatively rural county with a sizeable Catholic population. It may have voted for Obama in 2008, but almost all its county officials are now Republican. Toledo, where Romney is due to speak later that afternoon, is a big auto industry town, quite poor, and quite racially diverse. Union country. Democrat country. “Fuck Romney,” the cab driver taking me to the convention centre says with feeling when he learns who I am on my way to see.

Governor Romney's audience is considerably smaller than Obama's. It is much older, much whiter, and much more male-dominated too. Old men mutter in the background unselfconsciously over the people speaking, as if talking at a television set. A giant green digital debt-clock, twenty feet high, speeds upwards ominously. Country music plays. Like Paul Ryan two days ago, when Romney emerges he is played in by Kid Rock's 'Born Free'.

Campaigning is about repetition. The same message played over and over again by two of America's cleverest people, repeated with very slight amendments over and over again in town halls, sports arenas, car parks, factories and airfields around the country; planed and moulded but essentially the same each time. The game is about folding local events, local stories, into that message. In Lima on Monday, Paul Ryan brought the local tank factory seamlessly into his defence cuts narrative. The narrative itself will be the same everywhere, however: only the name of the plant changes.

In 2008, on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, I met then-vice-Presidential candidate Joe Biden. He shook my hand, leaned in close and told me, with a twinkle in his eye: “if I had your hair, I'd be President.”

I was more than a little deflated some while later, when I discovered that Biden says this to pretty much everyone he meets with hair. The same charming line, the same twinkle of the eye, over and over and over again. You see why they say politics is bad for the soul?

Endless repetition can trip some candidates up. Romney today, near the end of his speech, said: “you've been outside for a long time now, but I want to tell you one last thing.” A slight wince was very briefly visible on his face, as he realised he was speaking to an audience at an indoor arena. But with speeches and quips that are all learned by rote, such slips are occasionally inevitable.


This morning, the candidates will have read a New York Times poll that gives Obama a bracing ten-point lead in Ohio; enough to give the President plenty of breakfast cheer, and enough for Romney allow a single un-businesslike sob escape into his morning cappuccino; but if you had not seen them at breakfast and just watched them speak, you may well have thought the polls had been the opposite. Romney, for all his awkwardness, is light-hearted; he looks suspiciously like he's having fun.

Romney, though hoarse-voiced, talks more like a comedian, peppering his speech with a stand-up's patter. “China has been holding down its currency. What does that do? I'll tell you what that does...” You wouldn't catch such down-home familiarity in Obama's speaking style, and the audience in Toledo is charmed, banging their blue and white inflatable noise-sticks together with fervour.

Obama, on the other hand, speaks with grim, tight-lipped determination and a preacher's oratory inflection. Not even when the line “...and Osama Bin Laden is dead” produced applause so strong he is rocked backwards involuntarily on his heels from the force of it does he allow himself even the glimmer of a grin. He is a serious man.

The audiences are looking for different things, too. While many of Obama's audience tell me the economy is a concern - especially that part of it that pertains to student loans - they put social freedoms firmly above economic concerns. When I ask members of Romney's audience what issues are important to them, however, they are unequivocal. “The economy, the debt,” says Diane Ninke, sat with her husband next to me in the stands. “The economy. It's the economy,” agrees Joe Sipple; “the economy is head and shoulders over the rest.” Another supporter echoes Bill Clinton: “it's the economy, obviously.”

Romney's speech reflects this. He is a man who knows what his potential voters are concerned about: the price of gas, already mentioned three times in the speeches before him, gets another two checks in his first five minutes. “Gas prices have doubled” is the unofficial rallying-cry of the Romney-Ryan campaign.

And then there's that gigantic sinister debt-clock behind the stage. It would be unfair to call this a campaign of fear, despite slogans like “Ohio can't afford another four years like the last.” American politics has seen far worse, and the Obama campaign's ads (“Get Real, Mitt!”) aren't that far from the mud either. But Romney's is certainly a campaign of concentrated financial nervousness.

This would have turned Rubenstein off: the undecided first-time voter at Obama's rally did not like it when the president referred to his rival. “Obviously he's his opponent, so he has to bash him. It did put me off a little bit. But it's politics, isn't it.” He shrugs, and tells me he is still undecided: “I have to go away and do a lot of reading.”

Outside the Romney rally, the heavy afternoon rain has left great pools of standing water. A little girl of about seven or eight is being led between the puddles by her mother. A politician might describe this in terms of an economic metaphor, in which the puddles represent recession and the mother represents, perhaps, fiscal prudence. Unaware of her symbolism, the girl cries out in joy as she passes me, her arms jangling with badges as she skips. “That was super-exciting! I got lots of Romney stuff!”

Make of that what you will.

Obama speaks at Bowling Green State University. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.