Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Were I President Obama...

So the first presidential debate of the campaign is history. Here are my first-blush impressions.

As I see it, Romney "won." He came out more polished, and he was able to more effectively deliver a unified message. If anyone benefited from the debate (and I'm not at all sure anyone did) it would have been Romney.

His message, in sum, was roughly this: "Free enterprise does it better than big government, at least so long as there is regulation and so long as there are crucial government investments and an effective social safety net; and my plans achieve the latter despite what my opponent says, and they do it while trusting free enterprise instead of big government."

I say that this message was effectively delivered. That's not to say I accept it. I'm not at all convinced that Romney's proposals offer the regulations that are needed, make the investments that are most important for the future (green energy may be the single most important investment we can make for the future of humanity, and Romney chastised Obama for that prioritization), or provide the most just and compassionate response to the plight of the poor.

But those questions aside, I am unconvinced by the first piece of Romney's message. I simply don't think the blanket endorsement of free enterprise is accurate. Of course free enterprise is important, and in many things is the best way to produce and distribute goods. But when it comes to paying for health care (which isn't the same as providing it), I think there are good reasons to believe that a single-payer system that is not-for-profit has crucial advantages over a multipayer insurance industry composed of profit-seeking businesses.

Not that either candidate is proposing anything other than the latter with respect to health care in general--but Romney is proposing that we move to the latter with respect to Medicare, while Obama wants to preserve Medicare in its current form--as a single-payer, not-for-profit government program. Obama tried to make this point and highlight its significance--and I think some people heard it. But the message was at least partly occluded by Romney's repetition of the charge that Obama is cutting Medicare by $700 billion.

Obama did try to point out that the cuts were not to Medicare benefits but were cost savings made possible by other provisions of Obamacare (for example, universal coverage will save hospitals the money lost to providing emergency care for the uninsured, meaning they won't have to recover the costs by charging higher rates elsewhere, such as to those covered by Medicare). But in my view he didn't push this point forcefully enough. Had I been Obama, I would have turned to Romney and pointed out that he was just repeating a tired old misrepresentation of the facts that had been thoroughly debunked by the fact checkers when Ryan repeated it at the convention. And then I would have used that moment as an opportunity to tout the merits of Obamacare: the Affordable Care Act makes possible the sort of cost saving measures that increase the long-term financial viability of the Medicare program.

And speaking of what I would have said were I President Obama, one biggie pertains to Romney's proposed tax plan. This is what I think Obama should have said: "If you lower the tax rate across the board but pay for it mainly by eliminating tax exemptions and deductions, you haven't lowered taxes overall. You've decreased taxes for those who were not benefiting from those eliminated exemptions and deductions, and you've raised taxes on those who were benefiting from them. So the question is which deductions and exemptions Romney wants to eliminate, and who the current beneficiaries of those exemptions and deductions are. If it's disproportionately the middle class, then you've effectively raised taxes on the middle class. And according to such-and-such study, it is disproportionately the middle class."

I say that were I in Obama's shoes, that's what I would have said. The truth is that were I in Obama's shoes, I would have stared in frozen horror at the lights and the cameras and hemmed and hawed incoherently. And probably nervously chewed off a hang nail.


  1. I would also have been more forceful in answering Romney's repeated chastisement of Obama for not cutting the deficit. Were I Obama, I would have turned to Romney and said, "The reason I've proposed a long-term deficit solution rather than caving in to Republican congressional demands to reduce federal spending right now is because the economy tanked under the previous administration's watch. Cutting federal spending means cutting the jobs that the federal spending is paying for. Cut those jobs, and the people who held those jobs stop spending money in the economy. And when unemployment is already a serious problem, the private sector will respond to further reduction in consumption by...guess what? Cutting jobs. You can chastise me all you want for failing to cut the deficit. But that's like chastising me for refusing to gut an already weakened economy. Yes, I refused to do that. I refused because I care about the American people."

    Or something like that.

  2. I dislike this meme of Romney "winning" on style. Our politics deserves to be about more than which lies are delivered with more conviction and aggressiveness. The only data we have on Romney's budget plans are his tax rate cut. That is it. So talking about his "principles" of revenue neutrality which would defeat the supposed job-creating impact and all of GOP history and policy.. it does not add up.

    On Obama's side, yes he should have forthrightly said that the deficit is good, as you note. Right now, in our situation where people are unemployed and the rest (companies and banks especially) are saving excessively, some of those savings need to be recycled into real spending, and the deficit is the way to do that. Over the heads of most people? Perhaps, but he can not deny the fact that we are deficit spending, so it would behoove him to explain accurately why that is a good policy.

    He also could have addressed the overall issue of inequality and its corrosiveness, but that would have required that he yet again attack what I understand to be Romney's (and Ryan's) clearly rich-friendly policy proposals, insofar as the data allows judgement.

    Lastly, "I like coal". That is not going to win any debate in my book.

  3. Obama's biggest problem was that he spent too much time defending what he'd already done and too little time explaining how he'd make things better from here on out. It's true that Romney's charge to undo what Obama has done with a promise that everything can be done better is far too vague to be credible. And it's okay to point that out, but it still leaves Obama on the defensive. To go on the offensive, he's got to contrast Romney's vagueness with specific plans for the future moreso than specifics about the past.