- - Friday, October 5, 2012

Tom Brokaw characterized Barack Obama’s Wednesday night debate performance as “utterly inadequate.” Chris Matthews said Mr. Obama appeared to be “enduring the debate, rather than fighting it.”

It’s true. The president showed up expecting to be able to use his tried-and-true tactics of divisive, fabricated sound to deflect attention from the real issues and instead focus on the villain at hand: Mitt Romney. Mr. Obama tried, albeit lazily. In the opening question, he said, “Gov. Romney has a perspective that says if we cut taxes skewed toward the wealthy we’ll make it better.” Mr. Obama said Mr. Romney is calling for a $5 trillion tax cut — one he’ll pay for by “burdening middle-class families with a $2,000 tax hike.” Mr. Obama repeated that several times, but Mr. Romney was ready, saying as the father of five boys, he’s used to dealing with people who say untrue things over and over, hoping they’ll be believed. Mr. Romney stated unequivocally that he won’t raise taxes on the middle class, and won’t lower them on wealthier Americans.

Mr. Obama’s repeated suggestions that Mr. Romney wants to “burden” the middle class were haunted by his vice president’s admission earlier in the week that the middle class has been “buried” over the past four years. Maybe Mr. Obama should have spent some time coming up with a better word.

It was clear Mr. Obama didn’t spend time preparing for any portion of his debate, not even the important closing statement. Punctuated by “um’s,” Mr. Obama used nothing substantive in his closing argument. He said: “I promised I’d fight every, single day on behalf of the American people, the middle class and all those striving to get into the middle class. I’ve kept that promise and if you’ll vote for me, I promise I’ll fight just as hard in the second term.”


It was almost a pathetic plea for pity. In essence, he said, “I know I haven’t done anything I said I would, but I worked hard, and I’ll keep on working hard.” It makes no difference how hard you work if you are failing. What about changing course, Mr. President, and trying new things?

Mr. Obama came face to face Wednesday night with more than a well-prepared Mr. Romney. He encountered ideas and their competent defense — something he has steadfastly avoided for the past four years.

His strategy during his presidency has been to shift the public’s focus from specific policy ideas and broad philosophical differences, and instead stir the pot of discontent. In short, he does things the community organizer way. On issue after issue, with different segments of the American people (women, blacks, the middle class, immigrants, etc.), he has sought to identify an enemy (usually Republicans, but also the financially successful, men, the Catholic Church, businesses, conservative media and talk radio), portray them as fundamentally flawed in their character, and thereby unqualified to participate in the debate. By going after the character of his opponents, questioning their integrity, tolerance and intentions, he effectively silences them, or at least nullifies any substantive points they make.

Mr. Obama attempted to use that strategy in Wednesday’s debate — if his tactics can be called a “strategy” at all. Clearly, he just wanted the ordeal to to be over, but when he could muster the energy, he implied repeatedly that Mr. Romney wants to cut taxes for the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.

Mr. Romney was ready with what could win this election: ideas and facts, explained crisply, logically and with clear conviction. He believed and understood what he was saying. On the question of jobs, Mr. Romney didn’t just say, “I’m going to create 12 million new jobs.” He stated the reason that is central to his plan: “I’m going to create more jobs because there is no more effective and efficient way for getting us to a balanced budget than having more people working, earning more money and paying more taxes.” Mr. Obama’s accusation that Mr. Romney is just a greedy, out-of-touch millionaire sounds silly when juxtaposed with the reality of a plan for getting Americans back to work.

Mr. Obama will come to the next debate ready. He will trot out more of the same tired lies and distortions his campaign has been using, but he will redouble his efforts to divide Americans. Why? Because it’s all he has got. It’s his entire playbook.

Mr. Obama’s defense of higher taxes on businesses and wealthier Americans is not based on any logical rationale. He seeks to jack up taxes because the wealthy need to “pay their fair share,” and because we are in the financial mess we face because of “the breathtaking greed of a few.” He cannot come out and state his ultimate goal: the equalization of incomes through the aggressive, government-initiated and -directed redistribution of wealth. In the eyes of the American people, that is an indefensible position, so he must obfuscate with attacks.

He will claim Mr. Romney is hiding his wealth, has taken advantage of the tax codes and has written off 47 percent of the American people, including seniors, the military and (his favorite line) children with autism and Down syndrome in favor of his millionaire and billionaire buddies. In the debate about domestic issues, you can bet the war on women will be front and center.

I have heard all sorts of bizarre things the Obama campaign might pull out of its hat if they think they’re in trouble over the next few weeks. Some of them are downright terrifying. Likely they will just kick their overall strategy into high gear: Paint Mitt Romney and the Republicans as haters of poor people, the middle class, women, defenseless children, teachers, homosexuals, immigrants and anyone else they can lump in. It’s the community organizer’s fallback position: Divide and conquer. If the first debate was any indication, Mr. Romney is ready for it.

Kate Obenshain is a member of the board of directors of the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute and author of “Divider-in-Chief” (Regnery, 2012).