Four years ago, I was invited by the University of Mississippi to appear on a panel discussion about the 2008 US presidential election, one of the events that were to precede the first presidential debate that year between then Senator Barack Obama and still Senator John McCain. As I arrived in the college town of Oxford, news broke that McCain was threatening to cancel the debate. As the American economy had its meltdown, so did the Republican candidate. He wanted to be in Washington to resolve the crisis. The crisis did well enough without McCain’s assist, and he finally turned up on the Ole Miss campus for his first encounter with Obama.
At the second debate, a town hall type question-and-answer session with an audience, McCain appeared hot under the collar as Obama stayed cool. By their close encounter of the third kind in upstate New York’s Hofstra University, McCain’s campaign was burnt out, seared by the heat generated by the candidate. By keeping calm, Obama smoked him.
Those debates may have decided an election that had appeared close till then.
Therefore, as the series of 2012 debates commenced on Wednesday night, most political junkies argued that Obama’s challenger Mitt Romney needed a game-changer at upending the incumbent. That telling blow, low or otherwise, may not have been landed during this round, but at the end of the 90 minutes, Romney had certainly given himself a sporting chance. But rounds two and three still remain. Plus, of course, one between Vice-President Joe Biden and Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan.
Somewhat ironically, the man named Mitt was expected to take the gloves off, the kid gloves he’s sported since he captured the Republican primary; to go on the offence without being offensive. Romney flashed his teeth to the audience, and took some large bites off the president’s aura.
Obama didn’t use one of his favourite phrases — ‘Let me be clear’ — but his words were transparent enough. You could look through it and at four years with unemployment scaling the 8% peak, a record deficit that gets you wondering what comes after trillion. Unfortunately lacking was a sense of sunniness that marked 2008, but then Obama had to defend a track record that seemed stuck in a groove of underachievement. As Romney made his attacks in lists, the president appeared listless. At least in this case, histrionics didn’t repeat itself. Perhaps he was experiencing separation anxiety due to the absence of his beloved teleprompter. Even sworn (and often swearing) comedian and Obama donor Bill Maher noticed, as he tweeted: “Obama made a lot of great points tonight. Unfortunately, most of them were for Romney.”
Fortunately for Romney, his debate preparation may have been helped by Biden, who recently said that the middle class had been “buried the last four years”. Romney happily made that point. In fact, he made several points, counting them off on his fingertips like an adept bean counter.
Obama, meanwhile, once again bolstered his conservation credentials by recycling promises that were used by him in 2008 but left untouched since so they retained their freshness into 2012. Like getting rid of tax breaks for oil companies or tax loopholes for companies shipping jobs overseas. This was the digitally remastered edition of his greatest hits.
The US president’s best line may have come as the debate opened and he wished First Lady Michelle Obama a happy 20th anniversary. But this was not a night the Obamas will want to remember.
As the debate ended, the American press pool accompanying Obama hopped on to the waiting van, to be surprised when its driver said, “I think that Romney did real good.” It took some time before realisation dawned they were in the wrong motorcade. However, as a CNN poll after the debate showed, many voters may have been voluntarily getting on the Romney bandwagon.
Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years
The views expressed by the author are personal