I watched Thursday morning's (India time) US presidential debate more out of a sense of duty of a self-confessed news-hound than out of the rush of excitement I had felt four years ago. It turns out that I was right in feeling so.
Four years ago, Barack Obama symbolised aspiration. His ringing oratory, carefully interspersed with chosen bits of autobiography and his evident erudition made it both possible and immensely satisfying to read our own as yet unfulfilled visions of future into his lofty rhetoric. He was then our collective Rorschach blob, becoming whatever we wanted him to be, which was mostly for the good. Thus was born the legend of Obama the transformative leader.
He has been at his job now for close to four years, care-worn and weighed down by responsibilities. And it shows. His attitude this morning struck me as the response of a capable person who knows that he has been less than a spectacular success at what he has been doing. "I am doing the best anyone can in this impossible situation. If you don't like it, tough. Get someone who you think can do better," goes this line of thinking. The audience knows the tone and more often than not, its response is, "We will." I should know, because I have been there, and not just once, with the same disastrous consequences.
The American media will doubtless analyse every factoid, number or anecdote used by the debaters to see if there is falsification or exaggeration. Unless this is outrageously monumental, the findings of the fact-checkers and analysts would matter only to pedants. The voter is concerned not so much about the veracity or accuracy of the narrative, but about the manner in which it was delivered. The question would not be so much as to who was more truthful or accurate as to who carried greater conviction. Barack Obama was not that man today.
So Obama this morning was worse, a lot worse, than his poorest performance until now. On his own, Romney was better than before. Even if that was not a lot, the juxtaposition of the two opened up a wide gulf. In one corner, we had a weary and wary chief executive, who seemed to have lost his zest for the job, was shifty and at times hesitant in his responses, avoiding eye contact whenever the unforgiving electronic Cyclops closed in on him. In the other corner, we had a business-like opponent, who, though nowhere near inspiring, appeared confident and delivered his report to his stockholders with a degree of assurance and efficiency. In these troubled times, that perhaps counts for a lot. The American voters/viewers certainly thought so, as they gave the round to the Challenger by a thumping margin of 67 per cent to 25 per cent.
Perhaps it is still early days. Perhaps like Kerry in 2004, Romney will blow the boost he gets from winning the first debate. Perhaps it would be like the Indian cricket team, which invariably loses early practice games on a tour, but sometimes goes on to win the series. Those instances have now become exceedingly rare!