Summary: At stake, says Ruth Rosen, are two visions of the so-called American Dream. One emphasizes government and people helping each other and the other insists that individuals are on their own. Neither, however, seems to remember that that women are half the population.
For weeks, President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney have sparred with partners, immersed themselves in piles of position papers, practiced remaining cool, and in the case of Romney, memorized unforgettable zingers that he never used. But each knew they had the same task: to persuade viewers that they genuinely cared about the lives of ordinary Americans.
To do that, Obama had to justify his record, sound like a president instead of a professor, and to explain that the same Republican policies advocated by Mitt Romney caused the economic crisis he inherited. Obama did avoid sounding professorial, but he failed to explain the Republican origins of the American’s financial crisis in a crisp and lucid manner.
As the debate began, the President already enjoyed a substantial lead of 3-5% in polls a week before the debate began. His biggest mistake before the debate was his failure to publicize the considerable accomplishments achieved by his administration. These included saving the auto industry, preventing a depression and bank run by helping the financial industry, creating thousands of jobs through government-sponsored programs, promoting the rights of American-born children of immigrants from deportation, supporting same-sex marriage, signing legislation that guaranteed women’s pay equity with men, promoting health care legislation, commonly called “Obamacare,” that will provide medical insurance for almost all Americans, ending the “gag rule” that prevented funds for family planning around the world, supporting women’s reproductive choices and health, providing federal funds to Planned Parenthood, and promoting fairer loans to college students.
During the debate, he again failed to emphasize these accomplishments. Nor did he aggressively attack how much Senate Republicans had systematically blocked his efforts to create a safety net to protect the vulnerable, the disabled, students and the elderly.
Obama exuded confidence and looked comfortable in his own skin. At times, thought, he seemed weary, even glum, at having to address Romney’s misleading statements. His demeanor was that of a tired wonk, who wished he were celebrating his 20th marriage anniversary with Michelle. But when he flashed his infectious grin, viewers saw the charming and charismatic candidate they had elected in 2008.
Mitt Romney, on the hand, appeared articulate and aggressive, but not particularly charming or personable. Far too often, he smirked while Obama spoke about his plans for the future. For Romney, the task was to shed the image that he was a wealthy ally of the Tea Party that seeks to cut taxes for the wealthy and cut services for the poor. To win the primary, he had moved to the far right, even criticizing the universal health care program he created in Massachusetts, promising to repeal Obamacare, and changing his view from supporting women’s reproductive choice to denouncing abortion.
Now, speaking before the whole nation, Mitt Romney tried to portray himself as a moderate, even as he blamed President Obama for everything that was wrong with America. The political baggage Romney brought to the stage was considerable. First, he chose a vice-presidential candidate, Wisconsin Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, who famously wrote a budget that would replace Medicare—health care for Seniors-- for a private voucher plan, and whose tax plan would cut the taxes of the wealthy
During the debate, Mitt Romney tried to persuade Americans that he feels their pain and cares about the middle class and “working families,” an American euphemism for the working class and the poor. But it seemed inauthentic. He has repeatedly said that people must take individual responsibility for their own lives, and that they should not expect the government to provide them food, education, health care or shelter.
I don’t think Romney really had much of a chance of changing viewers’ image of him. Just recently, Mother Jones, an investigative magazine, released a video of Mitt Romney addressing wealthy donors at a $50,000-a-plate dinner. The video revealed Mitt Romney’s candid lack of compassion for half the population. He said that that forty-seven percent of Americans who support Obama are “victims” who are "dependent upon government" and "pay no income tax." He then added,” I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." The video went viral and undermined his last-minute efforts to portray himself as a moderate who identifies with ordinary Americans. Oddly, Obama never mentioned this video, nor Romney’s low rate of taxes, or the stash of money he has hidden in the Cayman Islands.
As the debate began and the candidates started to spar, they carried all this political baggage on to the stage. At stake were two distinct views of American society. Obama explained that government should help those who are vulnerable and suffering from layoffs, outsourcing of jobs, and the loss of their homes. (Obama’s failure to help enough foreclosures, however, made him vulnerable on this issue.) Mitt Romney tried hard to wiggle out of his repeated statement that Americans should expect nothing from the government. He did manage to look like a compassionate conservative, but one who believed that the market would take care of all problems.
Shockingly, neither Obama nor Romney gave women any reason to vote for them. In fact, they never mentioned them. At present 60% of American women support Obama, largely because every one of his policies seeks to help families, support women’s rights, contraception and reproductive choice and educate their children. Yet Obama took women for granted and mentioned nothing about their lives. Romney, for his part, also said nothing about women. Afterwards, I did not hear any “spinners” note this astonishing fact.
Among the viewers who watched the first debate were millions of men and women who have lost their jobs and homes, and live with gut-wrenching uncertainty about the future of their families. Mitt Romney, who believes that individuals are on their own, did nothing to reassure them that he wants to help them. Obama, on the other hand, gave people hope that the community and the government can strengthen the safety net and improve their lives, a view that appeals more to women than men. One promised a lonely uncertainty and disparaged assistance as an “entitlement.” The other offered the comforting vision that you are not alone and that you’ve got an entire nation behind you.
In the end, neither candidate dominated the debate and I doubt that the dense discussions of taxes and deficits change the minds of many voters.
Ruth Rosen, a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle, is a Professor Emerita of History at U.C. Davis and a scholar in residence at the Center for the Study of Right-Wing Movements at U.C. Berkeley. Her most recent book was “The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America.”