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.

  

Author: RICK BAYAN

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.

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7 Comments

  1. There is no talking around the fact that Obama clearly lost or looked lost.

    Mitt was a wounded seal, bleeding and floundering in the ocean. Obama appeared to be a Great White that was either too cautious or too full to go in for the kill. Had Obama gone in like a bull shark, this thing would be over.

  2. You mean this false smile? link

  3. My wife said I had the same look as Obama the time I got some bad clams.
    P.S. Maybe a perusal of Time magazine this week will bring some balance to the “Reps lie, Dems evolve” meme.

  4. You’re right Rick, the American public is addicted to style. Substance takes a back seat. The electorate seems to get more and more bovine as time goes on.

  5. And the politicians more porcine.

  6. I agree, I thought the debate was a draw or a slight win for Obama when I watched it for the following reasons:

    1) Romney’s weaseliness in answering questions
    2) Romney’s over-aggressive flaunting of the moderator format compared to Obama’s general tone of respect for Lehrer
    3) The shear amount of lies and half-truths from Romney
    4) Obama really missed his chances to get into the ring with Romney and take him on (Romney certainly gave Obama plenty of ammunition to go in on), though in the last third of the debate he had some very contrite, albeit subtle, lines for Romney that had me cheering.
    5) Obama could’ve been a lot more concise in saying what he was trying to say

    The vast call of this debate being a win for Romney makes me utterly dismayed at the state of journalism in this country. What Romney and Obama said wasn’t even discussed in the original flurry, it was all about how they looked and how they sounded. If the oval office was the set for a popular TV personality this would be fine, but it is, in actuality, a place of business for the leader of the free world and we should judge any candidate with that in mind. The media circus, in my mind, heaped praise on Romney for two reasons 1) low expectations of him and 2) a need to make the election come down to the wire so they had plenty of entertainment to ring out of this through November 6th.

  7. I’m starting to believe that this site needs to change its name to something other than the Moderate Voice. When I read through the responses I don’t get the sense that there is anything Obama has done wrong in the past four years, nor has he lied in his campaign, or ever for that matter. The statements about Romney all seem to echo what I hear from the Obama campaign, that he’s flip-flopped, he lied in the debate, yada yada yada. So am I to believe that “moderates” find no fault in Obama, his campaign, his past four years? The only criticism I can gather is that he didn’t lay into Romney enough.

    From my perspective, the reason Obama lost the debate was because the very same reasons that many of you view things the way you do. He, like many of you, seems to get your opinions formed by news filtered through an Obama friendly prism. I’m pretty sure if I showed you video proof of the man lying, many would squirm and twist out of it and say that it was fabricated. Obama is a politician, he lies. The first thing I learned about politicians is their number one goal is to get re-elected, at any expense. Obama is, from all accounts, the Michael Jordan of politicians.

    Obama was spanked in the debate. All the spin is just that, spin. Had he had any answers to what Romney was saying he would have responded. When Romney jabbed him with that comment about his donors, you could actually see Obama start seething. He wanted so badly to respond there but the topic was changed. Oh well, earlier he had asked to change topics when he wasn’t doing so well. Obama was faced with the dilemma of being called out about his lies. He knows he has lied. He realized that Romney was better prepared than he was and would probably counter anything he could have thrown. That’s what comes from not having to ever really answer to the press. The press never presses him.

    Dr. Thomas Sowell just wrote an article, the Phony in Chief, where he speaks about a video that has resurfaced with Obama speaking to a largely black audience. Yes, this was on FOX News, but I don’t think it has made much news elsewhere. The other outlets have said it was covered, but not the gist that makes Obama look bad. In the video, Obama lies about the government not caring about the Katrina victims as much as other victims because they were black. He explained that the other locations received federal aid without resistance because the other areas were predominantly white. First, Katrina did receive billions of federal aid, he was dishonest about that. But the most disgusting thing about Obama’s speech was that two weeks prior he had voted against giving the aid to the very people he was claiming the government wouldn’t help. He was one of fourteen NAYs. Look, the list of Obama lies is long. I read my news from a variety of sources, both foreign and domestic. Much of what I’ve read disagrees with the views shared here. I get that there are axes to grind on both sides, but I thought moderates were supposed to see things more clearly than what I’ve seen here. It’s possible on November 7th there may be a new realization.

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