[Political Asylum ]The Man Who Would Be Ex-President | Harper's Magazine

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

To change your password click here.

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.

After watching the first presidential debate, it’s hard not to wonder whether Barack Obama genuinely wants to remain in office.

Maybe he really is a secret Muslim terrorist from Kenya.

I mean, think about it. He runs for president as a populist, soaking up all the liberal energy for change in the country. Once in power, he surrounds himself with failed conservative advisers, and squanders most of his mandate. Then, just as it looks as if he will still be able to defeat his clueless Republican opponent, he turns in the worst performance any presidential candidate has ever given in a general-election debate, tanking the race and turning the country over to a party of fanatical Ayn Rand acolytes and warmongers.

Homeland’s Abu Nazir never dreamed up anything this diabolical.

I know, it’s not very funny. Neither was Barack Obama’s noneffort last night. Nor am I joking about his performance being the worst in the history of presidential debates. In fact, it was the worst debate by any candidate in either the presidential or the vice-presidential debates. And I include Dan Quayle’s performance in 1988, and that poor, befuddled admiral who was running with Ross Perot.

Who would have thought that Barack Obama would come off as the candidate with a hollow core?

Yet there he was, giving a presentation devoid of substance, vision, principle, or even basic coherence. He didn’t show a spark of anger, even when Romney slyly found a way to call him a boy, comparing Obama’s statements to the sorts of childish lies his “five boys” used to tell.

How the right’s hard-core racists must have howled at that! Mitt, at long last, has secured his base.

The president seemed unable to concentrate or focus throughout the debate, mouthing occasional numbers and assorted caveats to points he could never really complete. When it came to the issues, he offhandedly conceded much of the Republican worldview, something he is now apt to do at anytime, without warning.

What caused the financial crisis? Well, it had something to do with the banks. But Obama also had to admit it was poor people “who took out home mortgages they couldn’t afford.”

Physically, he looked shamefaced, even guilty. Whenever Romney made some point, he would drop his head, purse his lips, and nod, like a prisoner in the dock admitting to some shabby crime.

There is no reasonable explanation—no acceptable explanation—for such a performance.

We will get one, of course. We always do. Michael Dukakis had a cold for his big debate, and besides he was afraid that his wife couldn’t stand the mental strain of being First Lady. Al Gore never really wanted the political career that his father pressured him into. Etc., etc., etc. Barack Obama has repeatedly informed us that he hates living in the White House and can’t wait to be an ex-president.

Yet all of these personalized, psychological apologetics merely underscore the essential disconnect between the leadership of the Democratic party and its base. The leadership is now filled almost exclusively with careerists, who have no real goals they want to accomplish beyond their own advancement, and who actively don’t want to pursue any of the liberal ideas they pretend to support.

They don’t sound like they believe what they’re saying . . . because they don’t believe what they’re saying.

Neither does Mitt Romney, but he was able to put on a convincing act last night, visibly gaining confidence and command with each sally. By the end of the night, he seemed to have channeled not only Ronald Reagan’s genial manner and poise but even his voice.

Romney and his advisers displayed a sleight-of-hand beyond anything I thought them capable of. In Romney’s reach back toward the center in the debate, he had to lie almost incessantly, breezily denying most of the things he has been advocating in almost two years of campaigning. And it didn’t help Obama that Jim Lehrer looked as if he was up well past his bedtime, barely able to keep track of the debate much less effectively monitor it.

Obama had a perfect opportunity to impose his own agenda on last night’s debate. He could and should have made the entire evening a debate on Romney’s shocking contention that nearly half the country is made up of “victims and dependents,” mooching off the rest of us simply because they are not currently paying federal income taxes.

Romney did not want this made public, but he has not denied that he believes it, admitting only that he expressed himself badly. Could there possibly be any better setup? Obama could have turned the whole evening into a seminar on just how radical and bizarre Republican thinking has become. All of Romney’s attempts to obfuscate and lie about the figures of his fantastical schemes for balancing the budget could have been easily bulldozed.

A real president, a president of the professional ability that Democrats used to elect routinely, could have managed such a feat while simultaneously threatening the mullahs of Tehran into submission and making a condolence call to a sick child.

Instead, Obama signaled that he wants out. His diehard supporters are already trying to wave away this weirdly awful, unengaged performance as just his latest turn of Zen mastery, but that dog won’t hunt. They should steel themselves for more shocking displays of indifference over the next month on the part of this strangely diffident individual. It’s quite possible that he means what he says, and he really can’t wait to become an ex-president.

For all of his fumblings, Mitt Romney by contrast very much wants to be president, and if Barack Obama has decided to open the door to the White House, Romney will stroll on through. It will be “morning in America” again—and this time, the stakes will be higher than ever.

Make no mistake about it. Once ensconced in the Oval Office, Romney will do exactly what he says he will. He really will launch an air strike and probably an invasion of Iran. He really will extract every last ounce of the fossil fuels he and his party love so much, no matter what that does to the climate. He really will privatize as much of the country as he can—our education system, our municipal services, everything. And he really will convert your Social Security, your Medicare, and your Medicaid into vouchers.

Mitt Romney could very easily become our next Ronald Reagan, a president who cobbles together an immediate recovery while inflicting incalculable, long-term damage on us all. And that’s why the performance President Obama handed in last night was unforgivable. He was not just representing himself. He was supposed to be out there for all of us, especially for those of us who desperately need things like a monthly check to live on when we’re too old to work anymore and a hospital bed to lie down in.

He was supposed to be a president.

More from