Ruth Marcus / Politics

The Artful Dodger

WASHINGTON -- I was prepared, sorta, kinda, to defend Barack Obama's debate performance until I heard Obama adviser David Axelrod on television preening about how the president had spoken to viewers like adults.

Oh please. If only.

Defense first. Wednesday night's debate posed two risks for Obama. One danger, if the president had come out swinging the way my wrestling-fan colleagues are now clamoring for, was that he would come off as arrogant, snide, dismissive -- that he would have another "likable enough" moment.

This might have been a lot more fun -- more smackdown snippets for the highlights reel -- but it would not have served the president well. We'd be replaying the attack moments and talking about a snarling Obama, unlikable enough.

The other risk was being disdained as too passive, too restrained. Obama's advisers clearly made the decision, and I think it was the right one, that this was the lesser risk. Did Obama dial it down too far? Did he hold back when he should have pounced? Sure, but calibrating the balance of aggressiveness is not an easy task. If I were an Obama adviser, I would worry about the danger of Obama overcompensating in the second debate, much like Al Gore did by invading George W. Bush's space.

Granted, my failure to be swept away on the tide of Obama-bashing derives in part from an inability to separate the cosmetics of the evening (Mitt Romney's patient, mildly disdainful smile as Obama spoke versus the president's grimacing, head-down contrast) from the substance of Romney's relentless dodging -- on taxes, on spending, on debt reduction.

The Republican nominee produced a rare presidential smile when he spoke of being the father of five boys and, therefore, "used to people saying something that's not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I'll believe it." Yet Romney was the ultimate practitioner of this repeated-enough tactic, especially on the topic of his plan to cut personal income tax rates by 20 percent.

Romney waved away any questions about how to fill the $5 trillion hole with airy promises of curtailed deductions, unspecified, and economic growth, assumed. Reputable analyses show this is not feasible without raising taxes on the middle class? "There are all these studies out there," Romney said, waving them away. But facts are stubborn things.

Asked what he would cut, Romney was reduced, once again, to citing Big Bird. "I'm sorry, Jim, I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS," he told moderator Jim Lehrer. Amount of federal spending on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in fiscal year 2013? A whopping $445 million. Million, with an M. Chump change cuts like this can hardly be taken seriously.

Romney said the president "should have grabbed" the Simpson-Bowles debt reduction plan, but he rejects the plan's fundamental approach of balancing spending cuts with increased tax revenue.

Romney was blatantly dishonest at numerous points. He said the new Medicare payment board would "tell people ultimately what treatments they're going to receive," when the statute specifically prohibits such judgments. He said re-electing Obama would mean "dramatic" and "devastating" military cuts -- when those are called for in the to-be-avoided-at-all-costs sequester that Romney's running mate voted for.

I could go on, but let me turn to Axelrod's praise of Obama as serious truth-teller. Hardly.

Two examples of presidential obfuscation will suffice. First, Obama praised himself for a "specific $4 trillion deficit reduction plan." He offers $2.50 in cuts for every $1 in additional revenue, Obama boasted. But Obama's $4 trillion isn't enough to put the debt on a sustainable, downward course. That total is padded by including in the supposed "cuts" nearly $1 trillion in phantom savings from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The comparable savings from the Simpson-Bowles commission would total $6.6 trillion to Obama's $4 trillion. So much for straight talk.

Same for entitlements. How to address Medicare spending? "Lower health care costs," Obama advised. Social Security? Some tweaking will suffice. On this score, Romney gets some honesty credit for saying, when it comes to Medicare, that "for higher-income people, we're going to have to lower some of the benefits."

One of these men will take the oath of office next January. One might have out-zinged the other on Wednesday night. Neither has prepared the American public for the hard choices ahead.

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Ruth Marcus' email address is ruthmarcus@washpost.com.

Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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