By Paolo von Schirach
October 26, 2012
WASHINGTON – Months and months of carefully orchestrated and diligently planned Romney character assassination (“super rich, vulture capitalist”) went up in smoke during the first presidential Denver debate on October 3. With 70 million Americans watching, Obama was flat and despondent, Romney engaged and pleasant. The Obama strategy to win by default because of the successful demonization of challenger Romney has failed.
The impact of the debates
The effect of this debate performance has been extremely powerful. Obama’s consistent lead in the polls vanished. Romney is now a possible winner, something considered almost a dream before Detroit.
True enough, the American electorate is split almost 50-50. Still, while rock solid partisan voters will vote for their man no matter what, some with less intense feelings may be swayed. And in this context “likability” becomes a critical factor. Up to Detroit the unanimous consensus was that Romney was wooden, not comfortable in his own skin and therefore not projecting any personal warmth.
Well, now this perception has changed. Obama was lost in Denver, angry and patronizing in the subsequent two debates. Romney has his flaws too, of course. But he came out of these highly publicized events as a far more credible would-be president.
Who has the most appealing personality?
In the end, while a policy agenda matching the needs of the country does matter, Americans want to fall in love with their President. And now at least some who thought Obama was their man are seriously considering Romney as an alternative because he looks the part, while Obama in their eyes no longer does.
If we believe Bob Woodward’s new book, “The Price of Politics“, what we saw in Denver and afterwards is the real Obama: a man of perhaps above average intelligence who is however way out of his depth in the White House. He hectors and lectures but he does not know how to lead.
True leadership needed
In America true leadership is about bringing the other side to the table in order to hammer a decent compromise that carries the country forward, all this without making the other side look like a loser. Obama lacks this quality. He is described by many as haughty and patronizing, when he should be affable and engaging.
The personality difference between Obama and Romney emerged clearly during the debates because they were not scripted events. Under pressure Romney could still be engaging and relatively relaxed; while Obama was either lost or angry.
Obama could not bring the other side to the table
All this is of course largely speculation. Still, the record of the last four years shows that Obama could not lead when America needed grand bargains on fiscal and tax reform, with special focus on Medicare and Social Security. He had a great opportunity when the Bowles-Simpson Debt Commission issued its Report in December 2010, and he let that one go. Likewise, Obama could not lead on new pro-growth policies that would inspire confidence (and therefore stimulate new investments) among business leaders.
Of course, the other side has its responsibilities. There is now a strident and frankly irresposible fringe within the Republican Party (Tea Party and all their friends) that will say “No” to any and all compromises with this White House as a matter of principle. This is very bad. But Congressmen, however numerous and misguided, are not national leaders. The President is the national leader. His voice counts a lot more.
Reagan had a good touch
President Ronald Reagan was demonized by the Left as a trigger happy, hopelessly far right and unintelligent lunatic. And yet Reagan was a genuinely affable man. He had a personal touch that made it possible for him to bring the Democrats to the table and achieve tangible results such as Social Security reform and the 1986 major tax reform.
The next President will have to lead
Personality does matter in US politics. Should Romney get elected, for the sake of America’s future let’s hope that what we saw in the debates is the real thing: a man whit good ideas who can credibly bring all parties to the table and strike honorable compromises that will help the country emerge out of this funk.