President Obama performed so badly in the debate last night that Amy Davidson from the New Yorker was able to cite seven opportunities he missed to nail Mitt Romney. I think her most egregious example was the President’s failure to swoop down on Romney’s comment that he needed to tell his attorney about the tax deduction Obama said U.S. corporations receive when they move American jobs abroad.
Romney said: “You said you get a deduction for getting a plant overseas. Look, I’ve been in business for twenty-five years. I have no idea what you’re talking about. I maybe need to get a new accountant.”
Obama should have said, according to Davidson:
a) “Sounds like you have a lot of experience moving jobs overseas.” b) “Governor, you’re the one who is wrong. You might even find that deduction in the hundred of pages of your own returns” c) “I don’t know, Governor, based on what we know about the rate of taxes you pay, you might want to keep that accountant.” (Nick Paumgarten came up with that one in The New Yorker’s live chat.)
The President’s failure to catch that rhetorical softball was bad, but far worse was his glaring refusal to confront and sting Romney for flip-flopping on big matters like his tax plan. The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Factcheck.org all agree that Romney has proposed a $5 trillion tax cut. As a Facebook friend of mine suggested, Obama could at any moment have pulled back and said, “Ok, yesterday you had one tax plan. Now you say have another. What exactly is your plan? I have time for you to explain it.”
Romney changed his entire tone during the debate, largely by parroting Obama’s talking points, leading a lot of viewers to wonder — egged on by moderator Jim Lehrer’s questions — how the two men actually differ. Smarter people than me, including Gene Demby writing for Dominion of New York, say the impact of Presidential debates is overstated. But if this debate is an exception, Romney’s parroting of Obama could very well be a major blow to Obama’s campaign.
Most likely, Romney’s logic is that if white independent voters are given a choice between a black man and a white man with the same ideas, the white voters will choose the white man, because he makes them feel more “comfortable.” It’s a very cynical way of thinking that could actually help Mitt Romney win this election.
Surely, Obama’s campaign strategists know this. So why did the President avoid a heavy counter-attack of Mitt Romney? A lot of black people in social media are saying it’s because the President has to avoid looking like an angry black man. No one (and by no one, they mean white people) wants the specter of a black man threatening or sassing the good, smart white businessman who only wants what’s best for us. Sigh.
During Obama’s April 26, 2007 primary debate in South Carolina, he received a softball question that he flubbed, perfectly illustrating how race binds his words and actions.
Q: The NAACP has asked tourists, groups and sporting events not to come to South Carolina until the confederate flag has been removed from the statehouse grounds. Do you agree with that? Why are you, the candidates, in South Carolina if they support the NAACP? A: I think that the Confederate flag should be put in a museum. That’s where it belongs. But we’ve got an enormous debate that’s taking place in this country right now. And we’ve got to engage the people of South Carolina in that debate.
He started out strong, then conceded that the confederate flag was a matter of debate. And when he got to the Oval Office, he continued the Presidential tradition of sending dead Confederate veterans a wreath for their Arlington National Cemetery monument.
I understand that as a black man at the helm of this nation, Obama is in a pickle. Tanehisi Coates wrote a great description of that predicament in his landmark “Fear of a Black President” essay:
“Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.”
I don’t pretend to be happy around white people, which is one reason I probably could never be successful in a corporate environment. But I do understand and respect the compromise that black people make everyday to get along in their workplaces, including the White House. I even understand why, back in 2007, Obama didn’t say about the Confederate flag, “The South lost a war that left hundreds of thousands of Americans dead, while defending slavery. The flag is history. Put it in a museum and move on.”
Putting up with BS is part of what keeps President Obama alive. So I’ve stood behind most of his compromises and concessions. But I’m at the point now where I really need to see someone in power — namely my President — challenge it.
The fear that white people will perceive us as angry controls the behavior of far too many powerful black people — possibly even the most powerful black person in the world, the President of the United States of America.
How long will we allow this type of fear to control us? When will be the right time for us to speak our minds on our jobs, in our Presidential debates?
If your answer is never, that’s a problem.
I’m not asking Obama to go Red Foxx or Sherman Helmsley and start clowning Romney. I am simply asking him to be firm and direct, to be the authority figure that he is, to be the President.
Some white people won’t have a problem with it. Some will. It could cost him the election. It could propel him to victory.
The point is: No one really knows what would happen if the President truly challenged Romney in a debate. The only way to find out is by trying.