After-Debate Coaching of President Obama

In September 2011 I started a blog with the domain name of ashheapobama. My premise was that the Democratic Party should run someone other than Obama, or follow a favorite son/daughter course of action. I thought that Obama would have a hard time getting elected, because of the economic situation and the fact that he had alienated his most enthusiastic 2008 base, not only by breaking many campaign promises, but by having his press secretary attach the label “the professional left” to those supporters who had wanted the change that Obama had championed.

Until the first debate, Obama had run a very good campaign by emphasizing the magnitude of the mess he had inherited and making tax unfairness a central issue. Although I thought that Obama had provided much more substance in the debate than the substance-devoid Romney, the pundits and the polled public declared Romney the early winner. Some pundits described Obama as “too aloof,” “laid-back,” or “passive.” Part of the reason for those impressions is that Obama is characteristically cool and deliberative. Obama did, however, miss some opportunities to expose Mitt Romney as the change-my-mind-every-minute candidate.

One mistake of Obama’s that the talk show host, Bill Press, focused on like a laser beam was the $716 billion cut in Medicare that Mitt Romney referred to three times or more in the debate. Now, Press was not entirely correct when he said that Obama did not contest Romney’s calling the $716 billion a benefit cut. Initially, Obama did say the cut was aimed at insurance companies not providing contractual services and over-charging providers; also, Obama pointed out that the savings would go to close part of the donut hole and provide preventive medical services. Obama should, however, have come back to the subject, introducing it by saying something like, “Governor Romney, you continue to give false information about what you call the $716 billion cut in Medicare benefits. Incidentially, your running mate, Paul Ryan, includes the same $716 billion in his Medicare proposal.” Then, Obama could have concisely described why the cuts were necessary and the uses that would be made of the savings.

President Obama made a gigantic error when he said that he and Romney have about the same position on Social Security. What he should have said is that Romney selected as his running mate a man who believes in privatization of Social Security. After George W. Bush won a second term in 2004, Paul Ryan lobbied him to make privatization a major priority, Bush felt that Ryan’s proposal was too extreme and adopted a more modest version of it. Obama’s point should have been that if the Romney-Ryan ticket wins, a fervent advocate of Social Security privatization would be in the White House.

On Mitt Romney’s taxation plans, I would give President Obama a B or a C. Obama accurately pointed out that if Romney won’t raise taxes on the wealthy, one of two things will happen: 1) the deficit will balloon; or 2) the middle class will be hit with a huge tax increase. He also uttered maybe his best line when he said that Romney had been pushing a large tax cut for 18 months and now he says “never mind.” Obama also said that Romney makes references to elimination of tax preferences but hasn’t identified a single one. A response that would have merited an A from me would have had Obama briefly outlining Romney’s initial position on taxes, then referring to Romney’s speech in Ohio, in which he warned taxpayers not to expect a big cut in taxes because elimination of tax preferences would just about neutralize the cuts. Then Obama could have made the case that Romney vowing not to cut taxes for the wealthy would load a huge tax burden on all other taxpayers. Finally, Obama should have challenged Romney to identify the tax preferences he would either eliminate or reduce.

This would have been a good time to introduce Mitt Romney’s 47 percent reference at a meeting with donors held months, not years ago. Besides pointing out that Romney had disowned the 47 percent, he could have made the further point that Romney’s proposed cut of 20 percent in each tax rate bracket would not have helped those who do not pay federal income tax now. Furthermore, a 20 percent cut in a 35 percent rate results in much more tax savings than a 20 percent cut in a 20 percent tax rate.

President Obama made a very telling point when he referred to the Republican primary campaign event in which Mitt Romney indicated that he would not have accepted a $1 increase in taxes in return for a $10 cut in spending. The reference would have been more telling if Obama had said all the GOP candidates had raised their hands, thus signifying general GOP hostility to any tax cuts. Why not also mention that many GOP lawmakers have taken the Grover Norquist no-tax-increase pledge?

On military spending, instead of just saying that Mitt Romney will increase spending by $2 trillion over ten years, Obama should have specified the major additions that Romney is proposing for the military. To dramatize the magnitude of our military spending,Obama could have mentioned that the U.S., with about five percent of the world’s population, accounts for over 40 percent of world military spending.

President Obama was too passive in response to Mitt Romney’s accomplishment claims as governor of Massachusetts. Massachusetts was ranked 47th in job creation when Romney was governor. Also, it is a former governor, William Weld, who is generally credited with reforming public education. By implication, Mitt Romney took credit for that state’s high standing in public education; however, I believe that Romney cut public education funding by a considerable amount.

President Obama should have introduced Bain Capital as neither a job creator or a job destroyer, as Bain Capital’s mission was to make a good profit.

President Obama’s closing statement has been criticized as insufficiently focused. He should have introduced it as a choice between going forward or backward and then used contrasting positions on taxes, Medicare, and health care as his chief focus — there were the Romney pre-debate and during the debate positions on the Affordable Care Act. Then, to solidify the women’s vote, Obama could have worked in Romney-Ryan positions on abortion, equality of pay and Planned Parenthood.

Shifting focus in conclusion, President Obama was responsible for burdening his debate performance with positions and actions he had taken long before the debate. Nancy Pelosi is described as being furious at Obama for saying that he and Romney have about the same positions on Social Security. Pelosi was also furious, when, during the debt crisis standoff, Obama was on the verge of a “Grand Bargain” with House Speaker John Boehner, which would have involved cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. This handicapped Obama in drawing a clear contrast between himself and Mitt Romney.

When Mitt Romney quoted Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as contending that sequestration of military spending would have a devastating effect on the military, it was President Obama who could have prevented Panetta from throwing a roadblock into cutting spending on a bloated Pentagon.

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