Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012 | 2:02 a.m.
Last week’s debate was important not only because Mitt Romney “won” and thereby energized his moribund campaign. It was important because Romney won in a way that exposed and deepened President Barack Obama’s two greatest vulnerabilities in this election, while overcoming, at least for one night, Romney’s greatest weakness.
Maybe we should have seen this coming. For weeks, Romney had performed so badly and had fallen so far behind in swing states that if this campaign were a Ryder Cup singles match, you’d have said the president felt he had the match in the bag with just a few holes left to play. So he did the worst thing you can do in match play golf: He started playing not to lose. He continued with an uninspired, vague and cautious campaign and waited for Romney to hit balls out of bounds. Romney, his back to the wall, had no choice but to start aggressively playing to win.
He did so by repositioning himself as a center-right moderate. Yes, this required him to mischaracterize and disguise key aspects of his platform on taxes and health care. But because Obama did not pounce on that abrupt Romney shift to the center, Romney’s arguments were allowed to be presented without any counter and, as I said, scored a direct hit on Obama’s two greatest vulnerabilities.
The first, and the most dangerous threat to Obama’s re-election, is a critical mass of voters saying this: “Barack Obama, nice man, good father, great that we finally elected an African-American. He tried hard. But you know what? I just want to try something new, even if I don’t know it will work.”
That sentiment is deadly for Obama. As long as Romney didn’t seem like a credible alternative, Obama kept it at bay, even though the economy has stagnated. But Romney reawakened that mood by the confident and crisp way he talked about the mechanics of how jobs are created — through startups, small businesses and entrepreneurship — and the catalytic power of markets. His presentation crackled with a freshness and a sense of possibility that was completely missing in Obama’s monotone discussion of health care, deficits and government programs. And where Obama had a chance to talk about how his own green jobs initiative has actually spurred all kinds of innovations and startups, he whiffed. (As some have noted, it is too bad the debate rules didn’t allow him to phone a friend.)
I confess, spending time with inventors, social entrepreneurs and people who start companies really floats my boat — and I am not alone. If there has been one consistent weakness to this president’s public messaging, it is that it is often lacking in any excitement about innovation and entrepreneurship — the real drivers of our economy. In recent years, all net new jobs in the United States have come from startups.
Obama knows this, and, in his convention speech, he actually spoke to it eloquently, saying, “We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system.”
Yes! Yes! Yes! And, in the next debate, look into the camera and tell us what you are going to do in a second term to multiply the number of those risk-takers by 10. Give those people who are saying, “Nice guy, but I just want to try something new,” a real reason to be excited that you not only want to deliver national health insurance but also an innovation economy that will ensure we can afford it.
Your closing statement was awful: If you re-elect me, I will “fight every single day on behalf of the American people and the middle class.” That’s a given! What great inspiring journey are you going to take the whole country on to invent the future and spark more good jobs?
The other Obama weakness exploited by Romney was the country’s political paralysis. Obama is right — most of that gridlock was orchestrated by the Republicans to make him fail. But the fact is, a lot of Americans today look at our politicians and feel as though we’re the children of divorcing parents — and they are sick of it. There is a longing to see our politicians working together again. So when Romney spoke about how he met with Democrats once a week as Massachusetts governor to get stuff done, that surely touched a hopeful chord with some voters. Obama needs to stress that he, from his side, aspires to restore bipartisanship and has a plan to overcome paralysis and pull the country together in a second term.
The weakness Romney overcame was the notion that he didn’t care about or know how to talk to 47 percent of the country. This was the first time Romney directly addressed the whole country, rather than a purely Republican audience. He didn’t have to worry about the nut balls he was running against in the GOP primary and was not forced to cater just to the Tea Party base. So he finally took out the Etch-A-Sketch and moved to the center.
Is this how he would really govern? I wouldn’t trust it — not with all his voodoo math — but it was a lot more effective messaging than that by the Romney of old. This new Romney sounded like a man applying to be the CEO of a country that needs a turnaround. Obama sounded like a man who forgot — or resented — that he needed to reapply for his job at all.
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.