Romney’s Smile and Obama’s Frown: Lingering Images from the First Debate

Hard to believe (isn’t it?) that as I write these words, less than a week has passed since the first debate between Mitt Romney and the embattled occupant of the White House. Hard to believe that less than a week ago, the Romney campaign appeared to be imploding.

The Mittster’s notorious “47 percent” remark, uttered behind closed doors to a group of supporters and promptly leaked to the public, seemed to crystallize the GOP nominee’s image as a staunch and clueless plutocrat — an arrogant member of the privilegentsia who could blithely dismiss nearly half the U.S. population as freeloaders. It was only the latest in a long line of oafish remarks uttered by an otherwise intelligent, competent and supremely slick public servant. But coming as late as it did in the 2012 campaign, the ill-chosen quip seemed to seal Romney’s fate.

What a difference a single debate can make.

Within minutes after the closing remarks in Denver, America’s vast media machine unleashed a swirling torrent of punditry, nearly all of it blistering in its criticism of Obama’s performance. “Calamitous” seemed to be the general consensus. Romney, they agreed, appeared sharp, well-prepared and eager to win, while the president essentially slumbered through the most pivotal evening of the entire campaign.

Even within the ranks of Obama’s supporters — especially within those ranks — the disgust overflowed like hot lava from a long-dormant volcano. Liberal icon and generous Obama campaign donor Bill Maher wondered aloud if the president had spent his $1 million gift “on weed.” Even The New Yorker, that bastion of urbane progressivism, issued a cover cartoon that carried the most damning possible image of the debate: it depicted Obama as an empty chair.

I watched the debate that evening and I have to admit I was blindsided by the intensity of the Obama-flogging that followed. I actually thought the debate was a draw — a conclusion that probably nullifies any pretense to political omniscience on my part.

The way I saw it, Obama said the right things and said them well (if not forcefully or memorably by his standards). He came across as a model of concerned rational moderation: supportive of America’s beleaguered middle class… a champion of small business as the driving engine of the economy… commendably eager to reward businesses that hire American workers.

Romney, for his part, looked smooth and engergized. He engaged his opponent forcefully but cordially, and generally took the high road. That much is praiseworthy. But he also told enough whoppers to turn his nose into a telephone pole. Liberal website ThinkProgress enumerated “27 myths” that Romney unfurled during the 38 minutes that he held the floor.

What I noticed at Romney’s end was an abundance of weaseling — not outright lies (though there were enough of those, too), but clever evasions calculated to rebrand the GOP’s elusive shape-shifter as a stalwart champion of the middle class. Example: Challenged on his scheme to cut taxes for the nation’s economic elite, Romney repeatedly countered, “I will not put in place any tax cuts that will raise the deficit.”

That’s right, Mitt: you’ll compensate for your tax cuts on the rich by cutting federal support for education, the environment and Big Bird. Anyone can see that, right? Mr. President? Care to comment? [Faint snoring sounds emanating from Obama's lectern.]

So yes, Romney succeeded in slipping some big ones past the president. He looked animated where the president looked worn and depleted; he drove the debate, deliberately slinked from the right to the center and danced around his opponent, who was too tired, demoralized, indifferent or simply unprepared to take advantage of all those glaring opportunities for potential counterthrusts. And yet, if I had to score the debate on content alone, I’d still call it a draw. Obama committed no gaffes; he didn’t sweat or stammer; he simply told his side of the story. But it wasn’t enough.

Contemporary Americans, of course, are addicted to style — the flashier the better. That’s why Lady Gaga earns more than your average tax accountant. Back in 1960, Nixon famously “lost” his televised debate with Kennedy because he appeared haggard and unshaven. (He had just recovered from an illness and had lost several pounds.) Yet those who listened to that same debate on the radio generally proclaimed him the winner.

Obama is nothing if not a master of style, but a difficult presidency has taken its toll on the man who crusaded so brilliantly for hope and change just four years ago. He can still flash that winning smile, but he flashes it less frequently now. What a stinging irony that the silver-tongued orator lost the debate on style points to the starchy Mormon from Michigan!

In fact, the lingering image of Obama from last week’s debate is that of a numb, chastened, unhappy man staring down at his notes with a petulant frown. He had good reason to be unhappy, even on his twentieth wedding anniversary. He had just been sideswiped by an opponent who was rebranding himself with each new statement, and no amount of note-taking was going to salvage the evening for him.

Romney made himself immune to attack simply by dodging and denying his previous positions, and Obama didn’t know how to bring down a moving target. The rational Mr. Spock was no match for a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger.

One particular image of Romney lingers in my mind, too. I couldn’t find a photograph that perfectly captured its essence, but I’ll try to describe it for you. It was the image of Romney listening to the president, his craggy L. L. Bean male model’s face fixed in a condescending but curiously indulgent smile. It was the look of a father listening to his ten-year-old son telling him that the dog ate his homework. It was the visual equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again.” It was well rehearsed, and it was unnerving.

The fatherly glow in Romney’s eyes seemed to radiate kindness, but it was the cursory kindness of a wealthy man on who was decent enough to listen to a street beggar’s sob story. It projected a sense of assumed superiority. It was the look of a man who knows that his authority and social position are unassailable. And as a tactical weapon in a debate with a sitting president, it was pure genius.

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.


Founder-editor of The New Moderate, a blog for the passionate centrist who would go to extremes to fight extremism. Disgruntled idealist... author of The Cynic's Dictionary... inspired by H. L. Mencken... able to leap small buildings in several bounds. Lives with his son in a century-old converted stable in Philadelphia.