HE was, for the time that I watched, the consummate politician: Vague, abstract, meandering and filled with plans that would deliver education, American scientific might and healthcare. It might have worked had Mitt Romney, energetic and unapologetic, not stolen the show at the 2012 Presidential Debate in Denver on Wednesday night.
I started drifting off after the first half hour. It was too painful to watch. We should have known an accident was about to happen when we saw United States First Lady, Michelle Obama in the audience looking tense, tired, already bored perhaps. And then we learned that it was actually their wedding anniversary that night, and instead of a private celebration, her husband, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, had brought 40 million people to the party. I’d be upset too, and the President was probably so afraid of what would greet him later at home that he faltered, and stumbled and appeared disorganised and generally distracted.
Truth be told, the event needed a little more “angry, black man” and less “No Drama Obama.” So I think there must be something a-brewing in the United States. Has something so grave happened in the last few days that has weighed so heavily on his mind that Obama barely showed up for the debate? Whatever notes Obama was busy writing, while he hardly made eye contact with the audience, certainly had little to do with the matter at hand: Scoring big in the debate.
Obama stayed stuck on Romney’s 5- trillion tax plan instead of touting the policy highlights of his own administration. He neglected to remind the audience of why they elected him four years ago. He failed to tell America that he has signed a law that guarantees that no American will ever lose their health-care coverage even if they lost the job that gave them coverage — a guarantee that Romney wants to remove. He failed to state clearly that Romney wants to cut spending on education. He failed to remind that the very rich Americans will not pay more taxes under Romney but that Romney would raise the taxes paid by middle-class Americans.
Or did he? Perhaps, the master strategist that is Barack Obama, and his team, planned to be as inoffensive in the debate so that the post-debate commentary and spin would further the President’s election campaign. The media the morning after would spend hours talking about what Obama should have said, and the successes of his administration and the holes in Romney’s presentation and in doing so would actually promote the President. And while he has the opportunity for a redo in the two remaining debates, his team will still have to overcome whatever gaffes the Vice-President Joe Biden will surely make in in the Vice-Presidential debate with Representative Paul Ryan.
Whatever the outcome, the biggest shocker of the night was Romney telling the moderator and PBS newsman, Jim Lehrer: “I’m sorry Jim. I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS. I’mgonna stop other things.” “I like PBS, I like Big Bird, I actually like you too. But I’m not going to keep on spending on things to borrow money from China to pay for it." The big loser on that first debate night was Big Bird, the iconic 8-foot tall bird that lives on Sesame Street, who was at once unceremoniously thrust into the political debate and learned of his potential fate should Mitt Romney become the next president of the United States.
And if Romney should become president, the bigger loser will be the arts. As governor of Massachusetts, wherein the creative industries make up 2.3 per cent of jobs, Romney has “repeatedly tried to cut funding for arts jobs in Massachusetts and funding for the Cultural Facilities Fund which would result in the loss of close to 10,000 jobs”. And if he cuts funding for the arts, the biggest losers will be the children; four out of five children in the US watch Sesame Street, the longest-running educational programme on public television.
But even Romney’s plan to kill Big Bird failed to elicit a response from Obama that night. Clearly, something is amiss. We wait to see what the explanation for Obama’s pathetic performance at the first debate.