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Obama vs. Romney: You have to have a story, and answer the questions

President Obama had the better night, but both candidates need to do a better job actually answering voters’ questions.

Both candidates dodged questions throughout the debate.
REUTERS/Jason Reed

President Obama and Mitt Romney had their second debate last night and it went to Obama as far as I’m concerned. I’m glad Obama showed up for this debate; I don’t know who that was in the last one. But while I think the president acquitted himself well, his message still seems to lack a certain “punch.”

I think Obama could throw Romney on the permanent defensive if he simply adopted some basic narratives to describe the Republicans. All he has to do is talk about the economic magic that is their one and only plan (i.e. cut taxes and wait for the magic to happen), and just keep banging away that this is the same plan that created the previous deficits and the recessions (regardless of who implemented these policies — President Clinton signed off on some of it back in the ‘90s).

Another other theme he can bang away at is this Republican insistence that government doesn’t create jobs. If these candidates really think the government can’t create jobs, how can they promise to create jobs if you let them run the government?  I know, the Republican retort is: “we’ll get out of the way and the private sector do it.” Well that’s just another argument for magic — the magic of the markets; we’ve been there and discovered there’s no such thing as magic. Bush talked about the “thousand points of light” and Romney’s talking about all the small businesses, but it’s the same product they’re selling and we know it doesn’t work.

Basically the Republican economic plan is always to pretend it’s someone else’s problem and let someone else solve it — they’ll just get out of the way. In other words, they’ll outsource it. This is typical US executive class mentality: make it someone else’s problem. The problem is the US presidency isn’t your typical corporate environment nor is the electorate you typical board of directors.  How does a guy like Romney claim he knows how a president creates jobs when his plan is to let someone else create all the jobs?

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A third basic narrative can be organized around the power of government. Romney keeps pointing to China as the world’s emerging economic powerhouse. True enough, but are you telling me the government is not creating the jobs in China? It’s a communist government! Is this the proof that “small” and impotent government with no central control creates jobs and grows economies? You’re going to compete with China by taking the US government out of the economic equation? The US private sector is going to take on the Chinese government? Not likely; the Chinese have an aircraft carrier now.

These are simple narratives to establish, they’re easily absorbed and comprehended, and they put Republican candidates in an almost inextricable bind.  If Obama framed his argument with these narratives I think he would blunt every attack Romney tries to make and create a simple and effective campaign narrative:

  • Vote for Democrats because there’s no such thing as magic.
  • Vote for Democrats because your government CAN work and we’ll make it work for you.
  • Vote for Democrats because we won’t outsource the government to someone you didn’t vote for.

Tell me that’s not simple and effective.

Elsewhere in the debate I noticed that both candidates dodged questions. Romney was obviously frustrated by the expectation that he actually answer questions instead of using questions to launch into campaign stump speeches. Romney’s funniest dodge was his suggestion that he’d deal with gun violence by promoting traditional marriage.

President Obama had his moments as well, and I don’t like it when my president doesn’t answer questions from his constituents. On a very basic level I think it’s disrespectful. People deserve answers from their government.

The first question Obama refused to answer was whether or not his energy secretary considers low gas prices a priority. While it is a tricky question, I see no reason to dodge it. Obama could have simply pointed out that the president and government have little control over gas prices. Bush couldn’t keep gas prices down, why would you expect this from Obama? Short of nationalizing part of the energy sector there just isn’t a lot a president can do.

Now I happen to think cheap gas is actually bad public policy. I think cheap gas policy almost killed the US auto industry and sucked billions of dollars out of the economy when recession hit. Low gas prices led to high production and ownership of gas guzzling vehicles. For decades new mileage standards stalled because of low prices and auto industry resistance. Oil is a finite commodity that is getting harder to find and more expensive to extract. We’ve known this since the first energy crises in 1973. Higher oil prices were inevitable and when they hit the US was caught flat footed. US drivers pumped billions of additional dollars they didn’t have into gas guzzling cars, and the US auto industry nearly collapsed because it had nothing but gas guzzling vehicles rolling off its assembly lines.  Remember, there’s no such thing a free lunch or free gallon of gas. Oil costs what it costs, you might be able to bring prices at the pump down, but you’re gonna pay somewhere else.

Obama could have discussed this, and I wish he had instead of simply dodging the question entirely.

The second question Obama dodged was the Benghazi killings of American diplomats.  It was a straightforward question: “Did anyone deny additional security, and if so who did that?” Obama could have said (and I think this might actually be the case) that they don’t yet know exactly what happened. It was a complex event that happened in a dangerous and isolated place and obviously reliable information has not been easy to obtain. Obama could simply say: “I’m sorry but I don’t have that answer for you this evening.”  By dodging the question completely, he contributed to the appearance that they’re still trying to figure out what to say.

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This post was written by Paul Udstrand and originally published on Thoughtful Bastards.

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