On Style and American Ethos in a Presidential Debate by M. Pitter

After the first debate, media sources slammed President Obama for “not being there”, for not being “stronger”, for being “unprepared”, “uncomfortable” and “aloof” in comparison to Governor Romney’s more hardline and aggressive temperament. So what, if the Republican candidate lied to save his appeal, saying that his prescribed plan to lower American tax rates by 20% across the board wouldn’t induce a $5 trillion tax cut for the super wealthy? So what, if he outwardly opposes the withdrawal of funds from the defense/war budget to deposit them into the country’s ailing education system? So what, if the world knows that he would let 47% of the American people slip his mind? Governor Romney managed to assume the position, like a duelist, as the right-wing free market politician, a persona that has grown quite unpopular in 2012, while still coming out of the debates as having competed well enough to tip the balance of the election into his favor.

His ability to do this rests on the notion that much of America’s behavioral tradition and history, inherited by our generation, has been absorbed and adopted by today’s ethos. Meaning that our modern culture more or less still appeals to the free wheeling cowboy (with a plan and a pistol), the manifest destiny missionary, the honorable desperado, to the extent that discussing accurately the debate topics doesn’t matter so much as one can impose and pile-drive his beliefs upon people effectively. Strength in American politics has to be worn, flaunted and exclaimed, not imbedded, merely believed or implied.

President Obama vs. Governor Romney

Most people anticipating the debates understood the symbolic importance of the event, hence all the hype leading up to it, but they wouldn’t bet that the showdown would provide new conceptions of the two candidates. But while the President, for the most part, respected the debate conventions and kept his head, for the most part, down during the Governor’s speeches, Romney succeeded in taking mastery over the moderator (which wasn’t that difficult), forcing to the stage his ideas and his direct attacks at the President without much resistance. This perhaps more militant approach proved successful and it may have secured within the minds of many a Romney-to-be-revisited.

A challenge faced by the President arose when a video of him was dug up from 2007 speaking to an embittered, predominantly black crowd in response to the race-related conflicts that occurred during and after Hurricane Katrina. The then-presidential candidate carried a fiery demeanor, speaking sharply about how “the bullet hasn’t been taken out yet” regarding the federal government’s refrain from aiding the seriously injured and predominantly black New Orleans in the post-Katrina period, which really “steams him up.” He goes onto say that “somehow, for the people down in New Orleans, [the federal government] doesn’t care about as much.” This video provided certain obstacles for the President in this first debate. With this militant (seemingly black nationalist) 2007-senator Obama image on people’s minds before the debates, how would he keep his poise to satisfy all Americans without seeming too much like a politician who caters to one audience one way and another audience another way?

Hurricane Katrina Aftermath

President Obama couldn’t necessarily behave like Governor Romney, hard and terse, as not to sully his cool, calm and collected trademark and also not to appear as the dreaded Angry Black Man. Walking on a razor’s edge, the President ended up giving a passive performance that didn’t leave too many people satisfied with him and his prospective leadership for the next four years. His caution translated into prudence, weakness and uncertainty, qualities that weren’t good enough for the majority of American viewers. Romney’s numbered lists of steps of actions, his simple proclamations like “I love great schools” and “I want jobs” and even his more bold statements such as “high income people…will do fine in this economy, whether I’m the president or you’re the president”, apparently undermined Obama’s playing-it-safe approach.

If said-words existed in a vacuum like a text messaging box and both men were judged solely on what they said and not how their bodies behaved, or how they said what they said, then the President would probably not have gotten such a sour reaction from citizens and critics. He made sense in revealing how unfeasible it would be to lower taxes on the middle class and the upper class without worsening the deficit. He made sense when discussing corporate taxes and how wealthy companies should not receive tax breaks: “Does anybody think that Exxon-Mobil needs some extra money? Why wouldn’t we want to eliminate that [tax break]?” Romney on the other hand remained politically correct but not convincingly especially when he pretended to care that “there are people that are really hurting in this country!” He went on to advocate free enterprise and competition in the health care industry, saying that “good healthcare comes from [private] competition.” Potential skepticism on this claim, begging the question as to why wouldn’t private entities in health care undermine the benefit of people as opposed to the benefit of corporate pockets — this skepticism gets pushed aside by style alone.

As no vacuum exists, other elements come into the mix to create what we call reality: in this case, combinations of speech, composure, tone, methods of delivery. Romney stared at the President with a high chin and a tight smile when it was his turn to listen and conjure a response. This image sharing a split screen with Obama’s head turned down affected the sentiments and opinions of so many Americans regardless of how each would deal with the country’s issues. Media sources were going nuts over this. MSNBC ‘s Hardball host, Chris Matthews, cried out “He won!”, talking about Governor Romney based on his performance. According to CNN, 67% of people watching the debate believed Governor Mitt Romney won the debate while 25% of people supported President Barack Obama.Why was the President’s head down? Everyone wants to know why Mr. President was so seemingly timid and disorganized. Why didn’t he bring up the Romney-47% fiasco?

In important ways, the two candidates agree (at least on the surface). While Mr. Obama said at one point that “the Genius of America is the free enterprise system and freedom”, Mr. Romney said that “the private market and individual responsibility always worked best.” We see where their priorities coincide. Of course, to be a president or a politician at all in this country, one must believe in the free market, the founding ideal of this country. What so many people overlook, for good reasons, is that defending a free market economy prevents one from defending the freedom of “our poor” as Romney put it, because nurturing this economic system requires a degree of free labor. Free labor or slavery was an ideal aspect of the free market because not having to pay millions upon millions of laborers who produced our most valuable goods kept substantial amounts of money in the hands of the capitalist/planter making competition in this economic system worthwhile. Today’s free market relies on keeping labor as free as it possibly can these days, which means that jobs will continue to be outsourced and in this country there will always be poor people living miserably to keep the belovèd free market ideal alive and worthwhile.

A Simple Diagram of the Capitalist System

Note: There was no debate about immigration, gun control, abortion, the drug war and more. But then again, the victor of this debate, as decided by the American people, would have had to bring up his own topics; he would have to introduce his platform’s hot points into the context no matter how unrelated it may immediately seem. Romney’s repeated phrase and concept of “reaching across the aisle” suggests his loyalty to the church which we know has stances on various issues that many would not deem so popular like minimal rights for women and gays. Romney repeated his position over and over that states should have more freedom from the federal government to reckon their own laws. This could undermine civil rights laws in some states and tweak immigration laws that may have more people deported. No matter how harmful this platform could be for many Americans, Romney hurled it into the debate like an 18th century patriot exercising his civil disobedience which was just so American!

The Governor of Massachusetts even belittled the President of the United States into being like his sons who sometimes keep saying things that aren’t necessarily true but then keep repeating it. On top of that, Romney forced the quasi-offensive term ‘Obamacare’ into the discourse. Where the Governor could have come off as petty relying on cheap shots at the President’s credibility, he evaded that image through a persistence that Obama seemed to lack or a persistence that was obscured by the President’s mildness.

Every now and then the President looked directly into the camera to reach the American people on a more personal level, filling a strategic void overlooked by Romney. Eye-to-eye engagement works to maintain integrity. But even with this tactic, Romney’s cavalier attitude catering to a widespread ethos that values the defiance of regulation and that values an ends over means demeanor won him acclaim in this debate.

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