by Jonathan Rosenblum
October 12, 2012
The first debate between President Barack Obama and GOP candidate Mitt Romney turned out to be the most decisive in the history of presidential debates dating back to 1960. In the week following the debate, Romney went from over three points down in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls to take his first ever lead over the President.
While Obama may still win the election, the myth of Barack Obama has been punctured forever.
Ever since he burst on the national scene with his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, Obama has been a tabla rasa upon which others projected their fantasies. Despite the slenderness of his resume, no accolade proved too grandiose for his supporters. He was described as the most intelligent man ever to occupy the Oval Office. A 2008 Time cover portrayed him as FDR, and a Newsweek cover of the same year as casting Lincoln's shadow. Less than a year into his first term, and without a single substantive accomplishment to his name, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
That super-hero image was always wildly implausible. Far from being the greatest presidential orator in history, Obama has shown little capacity to persuade. Over fifty speeches on Obamacare failed to move the needle of public opinion: The more the president spoke the more the American public disapproved of Obamacare. With few exceptions, his speeches are unreadable – platitudinous and devoid of insight – albeit delivered in a sonorous baritone voice.
The image of the President appearing to shrink physically as the debate wore on, deflating in front of a national audience, will never be fully erased. His most ardent admirers were his most livid critics. Chris Matthews, who once admitted to feeling a "tingle in my leg," upon listening to candidate Obama speak, demanded to know, "Where was Obama tonight?" Andrew Sullivan – "everybody knows how much I love this guy" – was hysterical: "Never has a candidate this late in the campaign, so far ahead, just thrown in the towel in the way Obama did last week." Vulgarian Bill Maher, who contributed one million dollars to the Obama campaign, tweeted that Obama really does need a teleprompter, and speculated that his entire contribution had been spent on hallucinogens.
For someone of Obama's almost unlimited self-regard the ridicule must have been devastating. He once proclaimed his 2008 nomination "the moment that the rise of the oceans began to slow," and has already graded himself as a "near great president." His announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden was so relentlessly first person – recalling Mark Twain's quip that the only thing he could not stand about a certain person was that his "I's were too close together" – that one would have thought he was a member of the Navy SEALS team that pulled the trigger. Until bluntly informed otherwise by campaign staffers, he was the only person in America who thought he had won the debate with Romney.
Now, he found himself represented on the cover of New Yorker, a hitherto reliable source of Obama hagiography, by an empty chair behind a lecturn. Even crueler was Michael Ramirez's cartoon of Romney facing an empty baby chair with a microphone on the tray.
But if Obama proved "too arrogant to take a core campaign responsibility [i.e., debate preparation] seriously," in Sullivan's words, his media acolytes have only themselves to blame. They have cosseted him like no president in history. So accustomed has the President and his team grown to the mainstream media (MSM) insulating him from every criticism and demonizing his opponents that they criticized moderator Jim Lehrer after the debate for not having been more aggressive in challenging Romney's arguments, as if that were the job of the moderator and not the candidate himself. Left the face-to-face with Romney, without the MSM to protect him, Obama was totally unprepared.
Obama came to believe in the aura cast around him by the press, once telling an interviewer, "I actually believe my own hype." His lackluster debate performance might serve as an object warning to all parents of how ceaseless efforts to inflate their children's self-esteem can leave their offspring ill-prepared for all those who will later in life be more inclined to judge them objectively.
THE PRESIDENT'S PERFORMANCE, however, was only half the story of the debate. The bigger surprise of the evening – at least to long-time Obama-watchers – was how good Romney was: knowledgeable, forceful without being rude or disrespectful, and genuinely concerned about the plight of tens of millions unemployed and underemployed Americans, and the consequences of the ballooning debt on the younger generation of Americans.
Romney's commanding presentation will have more impact on the course of the election than the President's flaccid, rambling performance. The biggest obstacle to Obama's re-election has always been his record. As the incumbent, he cannot simply reprise the "hope and change" rhetoric of 2008. His greatest policy achievement, Obamacare, remains deeply unpopular. Unemployment has remained above 8% every month but one of his presidency, and the rates among minorities and younger workers are many times that. The GDP's sluggish rate of growth has declined every year of his presidency, even with stimulatory budget deficits of more than a trillion dollars annually.
Unable to run on his record, Obama's only hope was to turn the election from a referendum on his presidency by portraying Romney as out-of-touch plutocrat, interested only in feathering the nest of his fellow "millionaires and billionaires." The MSM went happily long with this strategy, and Romney himself provided some inadvertent support with the "47%" remark.
But again the demonization of Romney in Obama campaign commercials and in the MSM could only be effective as long as the larger public did not have a chance to see Romney in action. In the debate, Obama eschewed – wisely, I think – the personal attacks of his campaign ads, perhaps knowing that the well-prepared Romney would have effective rejoinders.
Romney was masterful not only in ticking off the indictment of the economy's performance under Obama, but also in showing how the lack of jobs is not happenstance, but the direct result of particular policy choices. He presented both an alternative vision of America and an outline of how to get there. The sharp contrast between the Romney viewers saw and the MSM caricature of him to which they had been exposed gave much more force to his performance.
Asked about a candidate for a rabbinical position in Lithuania, Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky deliberately neglected to mention his extremely dignified appearance. The townspeople could not fail to notice themselves, he reasoned, and it would have far greater impact by virtue of being totally unexpected. The pre-debate contempt for Romney only enhanced his performance in the same way.
The chareidi community in Israel could learn something from the impact of the Obama-Romney debate. The caricature of us presented in the media actually makes it far easier to leave a positive impression when we engage our fellow Jews on an individual level. Just like the judo black belt who uses his attacker's force against him, we have to use the negative characterizations of us to the Torah's advantage.
Look how well it worked for Mitt.
Read other articles by Jonathan Rosenblum at Jewish Media Resources
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