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The second debate: All is not yet over for the One

October 17, 2012 12:38 IST

A combative US president on this morning's debate made him recall the Obama of 2008 moving us to think lofty thoughts, says Shreekant Sambrani

If I watched the first presidential debate two weeks ago with the compulsion of a news junkie, I did so the second one with the trepidations of a partisan whose favourite appeared to be down for the count.  The first few minutes of the debate brought relief that all was not yet over for the One, and there was hope yet.

All the sparring on Libya and other concerns later on in the debate notwithstanding, I believe the real issues were the first two: the college student who asked whether he will get a job when he graduates, and the woman who was concerned about the soaring prices at the gas pump. These hurt the Americans most and will be the key to deciding who wins three weeks from now.

As was to be expected, both Obama and Romney danced around the questions, without providing a clear solution or a concrete plan. Romney repeated his mantra that his five-point plan would create jobs and Obama said that his policies had already steadied the ship and created five million jobs. If I were the young man, I would still wonder whether I would get a job next year.

Similarly, Obama said that he was encouraging explorations of alternative sources of energy and promoting greater efficiency of fuel use, while Romney said that greater drilling in the United States on private lands which he would expedite was the answer.  Yet, these statements would not reassure the woman that in the months to come, gas would remain at $4 a gallon, let alone come down.

Reasons for this ambivalence are not far to seek. No one has a handle on the global economic or energy situation. Any prognostication is fraught with the danger of going awry because of events over which even the president of the US has little control: a Greek (or Spanish or Irish or Italian or Portuguese) bubble bursting, the sundry warlords in Afghanistan and Pakistan (including their rogue presidents) pursuing their respective dreams of glory letting the rest of the world take the hindmost), the West Asia tinderbox setting oil on fire figuratively and literally, among others. 

An aside: why would any sane person want the presidency of the US (or any other country) under these circumstances?

One point that puzzled me (and was not seized upon by Obama, I am sorry to note) was Romney's repeated assertion that he understood the middle class pain and was all for applying salve for it. He said that under his tax cut plan, the top five per cent would continue to pay 60 per cent of the taxes. This means that the relative positions of the rich and the not-rich would not change if and when the Romney tax plan goes into effect. The rich will continue to get away with what they have been doing so far. How does that relieve the middle class from its burden? And, of course, it does not improve the revenues! Remember George Bush the elder's calling Reagan's plans voodoo economics? Is the Rom(o)ney calculation voodoo arithmetic?

I again recalled the Obama of 2008, moving us to think lofty thoughts, when I saw a combative president this morning. I suppose that is the difference between a fired-up challenger and a combat-weary incumbent. The roaring-soaring Obama was less so this morning, and so was Romney less boring-droning.

The final choice boils down to this (with due apologies to the 1960 campaign slogan): from which of the two salesmen would the Americans buy a dented, rusted, used economy?

Shreekant Sambrani