AMERICA’S corporate sector must be wondering whether the billions they have invested in the Romney campaign is worth it. Mitt Romney ditched his agenda and became what he wanted to be — the winner; Barack Obama appeared off-colour and tired.
No wonder, 67 per cent of those who watched the debate at Denver University said the Republican challenger had won. But as time passed and a more realistic assessment of the presidential debate emerged, it was the incumbent who appeared taller.
Mr Obama was consistent, without flamboyance, and stood his ground; Mr Romney played to the gallery, unmindful of the embarrassment he was causing to his team by moving away from what to American voters was his irreversible economic agenda.
Considered one of the toughest in recent US history, the campaign for the Nov 6 vote has generated unprecedented bitterness. Mr Romney triumphed through one-upmanship and tried intelligently to hide his departure from policy on tax cuts and government spending. The Republican candidate is unapologetically on the side of big money. With assets worth $250m, he is one of the richest presidential candidates ever, calls the Obama administration “trickle down government” and is brazenfaced about giving relief to the rich by reducing their tax burden.
In contrast, Mr Obama shows concern for the middle class, and plans to revive the so-called Buffet law to impose higher taxes on billionaires. The Romney scheme, he says, ignores the vast middle class and promises tax cuts which would come to a whopping $5tr, widening the deficit.
Throughout the election trail, Mr Romney and running mate Paul Ryan have opposed the Obama government’s ‘interference’ in the economy — investments in infrastructure, education, healthcare, energy and research — and attacked Mr Obama’s higher taxes for the rich.
Evidently, the Obama camp’s focus on the former Massachusetts governor’s elitist agenda seems to be paying off and embarrassing Mr Romney, who has not yet overcome the damage caused by the leak in which he said 47 per cent of Americans considered themselves “victims”, did not pay taxes, looked to the government for support “and my job is not to worry about them”.
The video of his speech, secretly recorded at a fundraiser dinner in May, was posted on the Internet by Mother Jones in mid-September, and Mr Romney tried to explain it away in a Fox News interview a day after the debate, saying it was “completely wrong”.
At the Oct 3 debate, it was obvious Mr Romney was backtracking on tax cuts for the rich. Claiming that the Democrats had misinterpreted his scheme, he said his tax cuts would not add to deficit, and that he would offset its effect by plugging loopholes and by better management.
Mr Obama grasped the contrast between his rival’s debate rhetoric and campaign pledges and remarked that five weeks before America was to go to the polls, Mr Romney was saying his “big bold idea is ‘never mind’” — a point supported by New York Times, which accused Mr Romney of “fleeing” from his economic agenda and “misrepresenting” an economic philosophy he has been advocating for the last 18 months.
Unlike the impression in Pakistan, foreign policy issues have taken a back seat in the campaign. Palestine did not figure in the debate, though support for Israel, as always, is bipartisan, but differences exist on Israel’s Iranian obsession.
The Obama camp has highlighted some of its achievements: there are no US soldiers in Iraq, 2014 is the Afghanistan withdrawal date, Al Qaeda has been crippled, Osama bin Laden taken care of, drone attacks will continue, Tehran will not be allowed to go nuclear, Israel will be restrained, his administration has imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, and “all options are on the table”.
Mr Romney would like to conduct his foreign policy in Cold War fashion, with Russia the main enemy. Because he wants the 21st century to be the American century, with unparalleled military power, he would give more money to the Pentagon. On Iran, he is a hawk and supports an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear installations, believes Mr Obama should not have announced the Afghanistan withdrawal date, is against talking to the Taliban, says he will review the drawdown policy, and looks at the Arab world through the Israeli prism.
Mr Obama, on the other hand, has brought about a sea change in America’s Middle East policy by looking at the Arab Spring positively and using it as a means of US support for democratic forces in the Arab world. Muslim Brotherhood, he believes, is an asset against extremism.
Mr Romney came out the winner in the debate, and he is gaining in the opinion polls. The Democratic administration’s modest economic gains during the last four years are pooh-poohed by the Republicans, who allege Mr Obama’s policies have hurt the middle class and stifled growth. The Democratic reply is that they had inherited an economy that had a $3tr deficit, that the Obama administration reduced it by $1tr and that by bailing out the auto industry it has created jobs and given a boost to the economy.
Two more debates are to follow, but since last week’s debate, some developments have gone Mr Obama’s way: unemployment has gone down from 8.1 per cent to 7.8, the lowest since he took office, the number of jobless fell to 456,000, and the stock markets are at their highest since 2008. But cold economic statistics alone do not decide a presidential election.
Mr Obama’s colour is both an advantage and a disadvantage. White supremacists may hate him, but he could not have won in 2008 without white votes. All presidents seeking a second term have to suffer the shocks and misfortunes of incumbency, but his charisma still holds. Mr Romney will have to prove that his white upper-class agenda can get him into the White House.
The writer is a member of staff.