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Oct 06 2012

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Team Obama Goes Orwellian

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Reality Can Be Sobering

If Wednesday’s debate had been a World Wrestling Federation (WWF) event, it would have been a decisive “smack-down” of President Obama.

But for all the multitude of reasons proffered for the President’s poor performance – everything from altitude disorientation to unconfirmed rumors of a pre-debate Xanax to calm rattled presidential nerves – one obvious reason goes unmentioned.

Team Obama has become a prisoner of its own press.

To whatever extent the President prepared for the debate – and the evidence is scant – his philosophical expectation was that he would go up against the caricature of Mitt Romney that David Axelrod et.al, had spent hundreds of millions of dollars since June in creating.

Romney the plutocrat, corporate raider and job killer who wanted to steal from the middle class to give to the rich. Romney the darling of corporations and CEOs and, unpardonably, Big Oil. Romney, the enemy of women who would deny basic health services and ban birth control. Romney who wanted to release Wall Street from even rudimentary regulation, and create a  general “law of the jungle” where greedy corporate America would be free to pollute waters, contaminate food and threaten the general safety of Americans, while reaping huge profits, unshared with toiling workers.

From Obama’s perspective, who couldn’t defeat a candidate like that on even their worst day? And if any old citizen could pick apart this agenda, just imagine what Obama, with his unmatched intellectual prowess, would be able to do. Romney’s hopes for the presidency would lay shredded on the debate stage. All that would be left would be the tedium of vote-counting before the re-coronation.

But as obvious as it would appear, it does not seem that it ever occurred to the Obama high command that the real Romney – articulating the real Romney’s agenda – would show up. Not simply to explain his plan, so obviously at odds with the Obama ad distortions, but to take the President to task for his manifest failures.

As a result, the collision between the Romney of Axelrod’s ad-making and the real Romney who would show up on stage was always going to messy.

But also instructive.

As an example, you need look no further than the debate about the Romney tax plan to see evidence. Very early on, the President said this:

Governor Romney’s central economic plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut — on top of the extension of the Bush tax cuts — that’s another trillion dollars — and $2 trillion in additional military spending that the military hasn’t asked for. That’s $8 trillion. How we pay for that, reduce the deficit, and make the investments that we need to make, without dumping those costs onto middle-class Americans, I think is one of the central questions of this campaign.”

Needless to say, this is a central charge in the Obama ad wars since June, and one that POTUS had clearly internalized. Romney replied, saying:

“First of all, I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don’t have a tax cut of a scale that you’re talking about. My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class. But I’m not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people. High-income people are doing just fine in this economy. They’ll do fine whether you’re president or I am.”

The President’s response?

Now, Governor Romney’s proposal that he has been promoting for 18 months calls for a $5 trillion tax cut, on top of $2 trillion of additional spending for our military…”

So, Romney corrects the record again, employing an effective analogy that most Americans would relate to:

I’m not looking for a $5 trillion tax cut. What I’ve said is I won’t put in place a tax cut that adds to the deficit. That’s part one. So there’s no economist that can say Mitt Romney’s tax plan adds $5 trillion if I say I will not add to the deficit with my tax plan.

Number two, I will not reduce the share paid by high-income individuals. I know that you and your running mate keep saying that and I know it’s a popular thing to say with a lot of people, but it’s just not the case.

Look, I’ve got five boys. I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it. But that — that is not the case. All right? I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans.”

Obama’s retort?

Well, for 18 months he’s been running on this tax plan. And now, five weeks before the election, he’s saying that his big, bold idea is, “Never mind.””

Here is where we find the crucial insight into Obama’s thinking.

Romney has never run on the tax plan that Obama describes.

There may be a legitimate debate about loophole closing and economic growth expectations in the Romney proposal, but Team Obama’s mythical $5 trillion in tax cuts for the rich simply untrue. Even (biased) fact check organizations   have already plowed this territory and found it discredited, given the President various Pinocchios or “pants on fire” for repeating it.

The unnerving truth here is that President Obama prefers the certitude of his own ads to the facts of Romney’s proposals.

Indeed, throughout the evening, the President stuck closely to the points raised in his ads; almost no mention of his record, and the continued, distorted attacks on Romney’s proposals. But as the evening wore on, the alternate reality on  taxes, regulation and health-care that Team Obama had constructed was increasingly at odds with the grounded facts served up by Romney in reply.

Post-Wednesday night, this “new reality” posed a serious problem for Team Obama, well beyond the implications of a lost debate.

The President cannot run on his record. Indeed, some of POTUS’ weakest moments in the debate came with Romney reciting the statistical manifestation of the President’s policy and leadership failures. He had no answer.

And the President cannot run on a bold agenda for a second term. That would refocus attention on his controversial first term accomplishments that enjoy little public support, and the serious shortcomings of his management of the economy. Unlike mutual funds, past performance is a good indicator of future success for voters. As a result, Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election focus on V-chips and school uniforms seems bold in comparison to President Obama’s modest plans for a second term.

So, all Team Obama has left was the caricature of Mitt Romney that they had painstakingly constructed since Romney became the de-facto nominee. But Romney left that image shattered on the debate stage. Unfiltered by the media or defined by Obama ads, Mitt Romney “broke out” at the debate and presented an agenda – his agenda – whose authenticy immediately undercut the Obama media play.

That, in turn, pulled the proverbial rug out from under the rationale for Obama’s re-elect; that the President may not be your first choice, but compared to Romney he is your safe, best choice.

Robbed of their best weapon, the key question post-debate was how Team Obama would adapt to the vastly new political terrain on Thursday morning. Alarmingly, Team Obama doubled down – hard.

Instead of tangling with Romney on the new substance created in the debate, Team Obama reverted to their preferred caricature of Romney. In this surreal, alternate reality, the Romney on stage at the debate was the caricature, while the Romney of Obama’s ads is the real deal.

It is Orwellian.

Obama started it on Thursday morning. “No matter what he says, my opponent, he’s a big believer of these top-down economics. He thinks that if we spend another $5 trillion on tax cuts that favor the wealthiest, we get rid of more regulations on Wall Street, all of our problems are going to be solved. Jobs and prosperity will rain down from the sky.”

It was as if the debate never happened.

To make this upside down assessment work though, Team Obama needed more than to simply repeat its tarnished charges – it had to undermine Romney as a liar.

David Plouffe, the Obama White House adviser who ran his 2008 campaign, called Romney’s performance “probably unprecedented in its dishonesty.” Said Obama campaign Svengali David Axelrod, “The problem isn’t with his [Romney’s] performance. The problem is with his underlying theories and some fundamental dishonesty that we saw last night,” he continued. “I give him an F for being honest with the American people.

There is a psychological term for people who opt for their preferred reality instead of actual reality – delusional. And what Team Obama is apparently sticking to is a political delusion.

Can it work?

67 million Americans watched the debate, making it the second most watched debate in American history (1980 remains the highest, with 80 million tuning in). 67% of those polled by CNN believed that Romney won; the biggest victory margin in a post-debate poll since they started post debate polls. The first batch of new state polls out, even with lopsided Democratic samples, show a tightening race in FL, OH and VA, all critical to a Romney victory strategy.

30 days is a life-time in politics. Much can and will happen to change the fresh dynamics of the race.

Encouragingly, it does appear that the American people – if not the Obama campaign – understand the difference between fantasy and reality.

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