Was It Something I Said?

Obama gets peeved--and prevails over Romney--in the second presidential debate.

Theo Anderson

Two historically unlikely candidates debate over the best vision for America.

Where but America?

Much of this campaign has been about two very different ideas about America and “what makes America great."

Where else could a man whose ancestors lived in Mexico and who spent two years of his youth as a Mormon missionary in France, and who is now a mega-millionaire with Swiss bank accounts and tax shelters in the Cayman Islands, and whose company has outsourced jobs to nations all over the globe — where else could such a man dream of becoming president?

And where else could his political opponent be a man who was born in Hawaii to a white mother and a black father, raised in Indonesia and educated at Harvard — and who, in his first career, was a Chicago-style community organizer?

As that Russian comedian from the 80’s used to proclaim: What a country!

But seriously, folks. These are two unbelievably odd candidates. They sound almost like sitcom material, but you couldn’t make this stuff up.

Our major-party candidates for president usually have something in their biographies that gives them the all-American” stamp of approval: the war service of John McCain and John Kerry, for example, or the Southern, good-ole-boy populism of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But those kinds of signifiers are almost entirely absent from the lives of Obama and Romney. What makes this campaign fascinating to watch, in fact, is that men with biographies so foreign to the American mainstream try to portray each other as un-American, while simultaneously trying to position themselves within the mainstream of American values.

Last night, that struggle had a comedic visual dimension, as the townhall format allowed the two men two wander around the set. On more than one occasion, Obama and Romney ended up just a few feet apart, talking and looking past one another as moderator Candy Crowely tried to restore order.

As usual, Mitt Romney relied on his experience as a corporate executive to do the hard work of Americanizing himself. His first PowerPoint moment came right out of the gate, when he ticked off his five-point plan” to boost economic growth. He came right back to it when a questioner asked how his policies would differ from those of George W. Bush. Nothing says American efficiency like a well-articulated to-do list. You can imagine the five-point plan that Bush — a fellow Harvard Business School alum — put together in pursuing his own first-term priority: 1. Invade Iraq. 2. Kill Saddam 3. Kill terrorists. 4 Destroy nuclear weapons. 5. Bring troops home. As that other comedian says: Git-r-done.”

On the other hand, it’s the rags-to-riches aspect of Obama’s story that has America” written all over it, and of course he played it for all it was worth, recounting once again how he was raised by a single mom who worked hard and sacrificed to provide for the family, and never once complained.

But so much of this campaign has been about two very different ideas about America— what makes America great” — symbolized in the two candidates’ bearings and ways of being, rather than in anything they explicitly say. There is Mitt Romney’s alpha dog, can-do vibe. He’s the fount from which the trickle in trickle-down economics is presumed to flow. Then there is Obama’s famous reserve — the sense that, no matter how much power he achieves, he’ll always be most comfortable in the role of outsider. He embodies the diversity that we believe to be one of our great strengths.

When it’s played right, Obama’s style communicates quiet strength and confidence. But in the first-debate struggle over who is more American,” Romney’s executive, alpha-dog vibe triumphed because Obama played the outsider role so passively and defensively that he seemed almost intimidated. Romney’s plutocratic qualities came off as preferable, in that light, to Obama’s dithering answers and inability to look his opponent in the eye.

There were two moments last night when the momentum back in Obama’s direction. In both cases, they were things left unsaid.

One came after Obama had explained how Romney’s tax cuts, along with his increased defense spending, would add dramatically to the debt problem that Romney and the GOP claim to care so much about. Obama pointed out that when he’s pressed to explain how he would balance the budget, Romney always dodges the question. Then Romney proceeded to dodge the question. Of course the numbers add up,” he said, which seemed like a promising start. But then he began talking about his records as a governor of Massachusetts and as head of the Salt Lake City Olympics. The tangent came off as a defensive dodge.

The other moment came after Romney said that the recent attacks in Libya call into question” the president’s whole unraveling” Middle East policy. Why did it take so long for the administration to admit that it was a terrorist attack, he wanted to know, and why did Obama spend the day after the attack at a fundraiser in Las Vegas?

Obama’s most effective response wasn’t what he said — which was that politicizing tragedies isn’t the way his administration operates — but the way he glared straight at Romney while he said it. Subsequently there was a kerfuffle over whether Obama had in fact called the Libya assault terrorism” in his speech the day after it happened, with Romney claiming it had taken two weeks for the administration to do so, and moderator Candy Crowley backing Obama’s version. (Obama, it turns out, called it an act of terror” the next day, but not terrorism.)

In that exchange, Obama’s body language communicated poise and control, while Romney who seemed flustered and unsure of himself. It wasn’t a good moment — or a good night — for Romney. You could say, in fact, that it was downright un-American.

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Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.
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