By Mitchell Goff
With mere weeks left on the countdown timer until election night, the US Presidential race is nearing its closing lap, and what a journey around the track it has been.
The ‘official’ part of final campaigning kicked off on October 3, with President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney facing off in Denver, Colorado for the first of three debates.
For many punters, what eventuated that evening was what no one expected: it certainly, as the Washington Post suggested, was not the two men we had gotten to know over the previous 18 months of campaigning.
Obama, struggling to eschew the stigma that surrounds the re-election prospects of Presidents overseeing high unemployment rates, has been on a yearlong mission to not only point out that his plans for jobs growth have resulted in the creation of 31 million private sector jobs but also to paint a picture of stark contrast between him and his GOP would-be.
The President had a wonderful story to tell: here stood a GOP Presidential contender who was the very embodiment of Wall Street and a relentless and unfeeling venture (or vulture, if you like) capitalism. A former CEO of a company that bought off American enterprise for base rates and exported jobs overseas; a man who so distrusted the health of the American economy that he chose to keep his minted dollar bills in Cayman Island bank accounts, and, perhaps most woundingly, a man who said that the now prospering Detroit auto-industry should simply be left to go bankrupt.
This was in fact, amid the dreary depths of the intellectually barren and shamelessly two-faced GOP field, the best the Republicans had to offer.
The Obama campaign would have been barking mad not to capitalise on the embodiment of greed and unpatriotism that was running against the incumbent. On this score, they did not disappoint. Obama’s attack ads on Romney’s record as a CEO and general maker-of-money was halted only during times when the Republican nominee was too busy being his own worst enemy.
From the early beginnings of 2012 the Obama campaign had so successfully deflected the apparent shortcomings of the economy that might be cursorily attributed to his administration to the values and economic plan (or lack thereof depending on your beef) of his Right wing opponent, that the polls were producing early results in favour of his re-election.
Even key states like Ohio and Florida began to show healthy signs of improvement in the President’s favour.
The narrative success of the Obama mission was intensified when the decision was made by the GOP and Romney to select Paul Ryan as his Vice Presidential running mate. For the Democrats, this was a dream come true.
Ryan represents the fringes of the Randian Right wing in the GOP: his budget ‘plan’ represents the sterile brand of market economics that is currently savaging Ireland. For Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, this represented another great opportunity to frame the national conversation around the economic terrorism of the Tea Party and the anti-freedom, anti-opportunity fringe Right.
The October 3 debate was not a showcase for these two, very different stories. Instead, Barack Obama looked tired, his words were monotonous and his demeanour was almost defeatist. Romney, by contrast, was warm, spirited and assertive managing to communicate a persona to the viewing audience that had been absent all election season.
It was widely believed that Romney, if only as a result of Obama’s poor showing, claimed victory in the October 3 debate yet the Gallup tracker still put Obama 5 points ahead among registered voters.
The second presidential debate told the converse story.
The showing by the two men on October 16 resurrected an Obama that was sorely missing in his first. Working off the back of two weeks’ worth of analysis on Romney’s eleventh hour policy back flips, Obama had both the record and momentum to give him the edge when the two met in Hampstead, New York.
Once again we were given a preview of what a Romney presidency might look like and this time Obama was pointing it out: the fact that Romney wants to spend $5 trillion for the military when they haven’t asked for it, the fact that he wants to extend the Bush tax cuts to the tune of $1 trillion and a further $2 trillion in tax cuts without, apparently, resulting in a tax increase on the middle classes. Contrary to Romney’s protestations there is no study, no economist indeed no set of mathematics that allows this sort of spending while trying to cut the deficit.
Despite Obama’s victorious performance, the Gallup tracker now has Romney two points ahead on 48-46, the converse of the reaction we witnessed two weeks earlier.
Historically speaking, Presidential debates, unless they mark significant changes in policy, rarely influence the decision of voters when it comes to the day itself. In this sense, debates are far more valuable in their theatre than their substance (which should come as no real surprise).
What Obama really needed to do following his disappointing inaugural performance was rouse the base and give those college kids and true believers a reason to believe once more. Against that measure, I don’t think there can be any doubt that Obama managed to do just that.
Despite the alarming poll numbers, unemployment is tracking down particularly in key states, Ohio in particular has a jobless rate of 7% which is 2% lower than when Reagan won. The truth is that the benefits of a slow recovery are erratic and inconsistent by their very nature. The sheen and glamour of the Obama 08 campaign would seem complacent and irresponsible today.
If Obama can continue to run a disciplined campaign focused on, not away from, the economy; if he can eschew the temptation to merely build momentum off Romney’s latest back flips and gaffes (such as that time in debate two when he confirmed he did want General Motors to go bankrupt) which run the risk of making his campaign look condescending and petty, then he should hopefully secure a second term.
The truth of the matter is that America literally cannot afford Willard Mitt Romney.