President Obama Goes on the Offensive

President Obama Goes on the Offensive

ON THE ATTACK; President Barack Obama charged GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney with being mostly “wrong” in his past opinions about foreign policy. The president and Romney tangled during the election season’s final debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, on Monday. (Photo: Robert Duyos/Newscom)

BOCA RATON, Fla. — An assertive President Barack Obama accused Mitt Romney Monday night of taking an unclear and vacillating approach to foreign policy, saying such confusing signals would embolden the nation’s enemies in a time of continued threats.

Romney responded by brushing aside the attacks, saying they failed to address the serious challenges — and opportunities — the country faces as the Middle East convulses in widespread upheaval.

The two men wasted no time tangling in the opening moments of their third and final presidential debate, a session devoted to national security and foreign policy.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, consistent with the earlier debates, took a more moderate stance than he has in much of the campaign.

He praised Obama for the death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, but said the country “can’t kill our way” to a solution in the Middle East. He said the answer is greater economic opportunities and the spread of freedom.

Obama immediately went on the attack, citing Romney’s earlier Cold War-style rhetoric and suggesting Romney wanted to institute a 1980s foreign policy to go along with a social policy from the 1950s and economic policies from the 1920s.

“Every time you’ve offered an opinion,” the president said bluntly, “you’ve been wrong.”

Seated side-by-side at a wooden tabletop and facing the moderator, CBS’ Bob Schieffer, each candidate hoped for a breakthrough while avoiding any misstep that could assume outsized import in the campaign’s final, crucial stretch.

The 90-minute session on the campus of Lynn University in South Florida was seen as favoring Obama, at least starting out. He is the nation’s commander in chief, with the gravitas that confers. Moreover, he can boast, as he has throughout the campaign, of several major accomplishments, including the killing of bin Laden, keeping his pledge to end the war in Iraq and laying out plans to end America’s increasingly unpopular engagement in Afghanistan.

Just ahead of the debate, the Obama campaign broadcast a new TV spot highlighting the withdrawal from Iraq and plans to bring troops home from Afghanistan. “It’s time to stop fighting over there and start rebuilding over here,” the ad stated, tying an economic argument to the president’s foreign policy message.

In the past few weeks, however, Obama has been thrown on the defensive on foreign policy, once considered his strongest suit, as the administration offered an evolving series of explanations for the attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans died in the assault, details of which are still hazy.

Despite that opening, Romney has not been terribly sure-footed when he strays from his campaign’s central focus on the economy. He staged a poorly reviewed summer trip to Europe and Israel, puzzled even some Republicans by calling Russia the nation’s top strategic foe, and has been burned by attempts to capitalize on the controversy over Benghazi, including a factual misstatement in last week’s debate.

The debate followed a pair of outings that saw vastly different performances by Obama, who faltered in his first face-to-face meeting with Romney, then came back aggressively in the second.

Romney’s commanding Oct. 3 performance in Denver rallied Republicans and forestalled a possible Obama runaway; the president’s comeback on Long Island last week reassured Democrats and averted panic in his party, though it failed to recoup the momentum Obama lost after his poor initial showing.

HUMAN MOMENT: After the debate, President Obama greeted two of Mitt Romney’s grandsons as their grandmother, Ann Romney, watched with a smile. (Photo: Jewel Samad/Newscom)

With just 14 full days of campaigning left, the two men are running neck-and-neck in national polls, even as the president continues to hold a small edge in the state-by-state electoral vote contest.

The topic of Monday night’s debate was a break from the campaign’s recent focus on abortion, birth control and other issues aimed primarily at women voters, who are seen as potentially the decisive bloc on Election Day.

The differences between the two candidates on foreign policy, however, have been marginal, with both sides magnifying them to suggest a greater separation than exists. Throughout the campaign, for instance, Romney has criticized Obama’s timeline to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan but, at the same time, indicated he would adhere to the plan to bring them home by 2014.

He has repeatedly criticized Obama for not doing more to secure stability in Syria and Libya, but has not said whether he would consider committing U.S. troops as part of a peacekeeping force in either nation.

Romney has mainly painted his foreign policy vision in broad strokes, saying he would pursue a policy of “peace through strength” — a Republican standby since the days of Ronald Reagan — and seek to preside over “an American century.”

More than 67 million people tuned in to the first debate, and the viewership was nearly as large for last week’s follow-up. The audience for the final session in Florida was expected to be smaller, due in part to the topic — foreign policy is not a top-of-the-mind issue for most Americans — and competition with “Monday Night Football” and the deciding game of baseball’s National League Championship Series.

Regardless, the debate was significant as the last chance for voters to see the two presidential hopefuls side-by-side and engaging in a relatively free-flowing, unscripted exchange. It also represented the last major chance the candidates had to appeal to voters who have yet to make up their minds and, perhaps more importantly, to excite their supporters and motivate them to turn out for the Nov. 6 election.

© 2012 Tribune Company. Used by arrangement with Newscom.

Welcome Back, Barack

Welcome Back, Barack

COMEBACK KID: President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney sparred early and often during the second presidential debate on October 16, 2012, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. After an uninspired first debate for President Obama, he came with renewed energy. (Photo: Stan Honda/Newscom)

President Barack Obama leaped back into the presidential campaign Tuesday, aggressively challenging rival Mitt Romney in a tense debate likely to reset the contest as it heads into the final weeks.

Obama was all the things he was not in his first faceoff with Romney — energetic, engaged, quick to defend his record and even quicker to tear into Romney. At points, he even jumped off his seat to challenge Romney.

Eager to score points from the opening minutes to the last, he cast Romney as an elitist who would help the rich, a chameleon who is all but lying to conceal his real agenda, a man whose scorn for the poor and working classes was revealed only in the secretly taped remarks in which Romney derided 47 percent of the country as freeloaders.

Romney gave as good as he got through most of the debate, reminding voters at every opportunity of the weak economy under four years of Obama’s leadership. He stumbled, however, at a turn over the attacks on U.S. diplomats in Libya, an unforced error that allowed Obama to score at what otherwise might have been a moment of vulnerability.

The 90-minute debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., likely helped Obama re-energize Democrats who were discouraged at his lackluster performance in the first debate, and sends the two rivals into their final clash Monday in Florida grappling for a breakout.

Most eyes were on Obama from the onset as he looked for ways stylistic and substantive to show voters he eagerly wants the job, and that Romney should not have it. In that first debate, he was passive at times, looking down at notes rather than making eye contact, and failing to raise such topics as Romney’s remarks about the 47 percent.

Obama worked throughout to tar Romney as a friend to the rich and powerful.

“His plan is to let the oil companies write the energy policies,” he said of Romney’s push for more energy production.

He lambasted Romney’s plan to cut taxes, saying they would necessarily force tax increases on the middle class.

“You’re going to be paying for it,” Obama said. “You can’t buy the sales pitch.”

Obama all but called Romney a liar.

“What Gov. Romney said just isn’t true,” he said of Romney’s comments on the auto industry.

“Very little of what Gov. Romney just said is true,” he said of Romney’s comments on energy.

Obama at times sat at the edge of his stool, rising quickly to physically challenge Romney face to face rather than waiting for Romney to finish and be seated.

Challenged by Romney the first time, Obama then walked away and faced the audience to answer a question. The second time Obama stood to confront him, Romney waved him back, “You’ll get your chance in a moment.”

When he wasn’t jumping out of his seat, Obama watched Romney intently.

He wasn’t Joe Biden, laughing or making hand gestures when the other guy was talking, as the vice president did in his debate last week with Republican Paul Ryan.

But Obama kept his eyes on his adversary, a noteworthy change from the first debate when he was often caught on camera looking down at his notes or away, giving voters the impression he was disinterested.

Romney refused to cede the stage, however, standing forward rather than returning to his seat while Obama spoke to the live audience in the town hall-style meeting.

Romney stayed on message most of the evening, hammering away at economic anxiety about lost jobs, rising poverty and shrinking paychecks.

“The president’s policies . . . haven’t put people to work,” he said.

“Middle-income families have been crushed,” he added.

Romney made a misstep, however, on the Obama administration’s response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya.

Obama stated that he called the attack a terrorist act the next day, brushing aside suggestions that his administration spent weeks giving misleading accounts that instead blamed the attacks on a riotous response to anti-Muslim video.

Romney challenged Obama’s assertion.

“Check the transcript,” Obama interrupted, and moderator Candy Crowley noted that Obama did use the word in his day-after comment. “Say that a little louder, Candy,” a confident Obama said.

Later, during the closing statements, Obama was given the final word and used it to further distinguish the differences between himself and Romney. After touting his record, he went on to finally broach the topic of Romney’s infamous “47 percent” remarks from the secret video footage that had snarled Romney’s campaign weeks earlier. Many chided Obama for not bringing up the topic in the first debate. This time he not only brought it up but saved it as his concluding shot in a match that one suspects will restore his campaign’s mojo.

What did you think of the second debate? Did President Obama redeem himself enough to get back into a close presidential race? Share your comments below.

Story adapted from McClatchy Newspapers, © 2012 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Used by permission of Newscom. Additional reporting by UrbanFaith staff.

Mr. President, What Happened Last Night?

Mr. President, What Happened Last Night?

MR. CONFIDENT VS. MR. SNIPPY: After last night’s first presidential debate in Denver, Colorado, many of President Obama’s most ardent supporters are wondering why he allowed Gov. Mitt Romney to administer such an unequivocal beat down. (Photo: Newscom)

It’s been interesting today, reading and listening to all the post-debate analysis. Following what most are agreeing was an unequivocal beat down of President Obama by Mitt Romney, many are wondering, What just happened? With all of the polls leading up to the debate favoring the Obama campaign, one would think the president would’ve ridden that momentum and brought the fight to Gov. Romney.

But President Obama apparently neglected to take his urgency pills before taking the stage in Denver last night. Romney, say most pundits, was the more confident, aggressive, and prepared candidate. He won the evening.

And President Obama?

Well, let’s just say the only “hope and change” his supporters are feeling after last night’s performance is the hope that he will change his approach for the final two debates.

As you might expect, there’s a ton of postmortem chatter spilling out across the Web and blogosphere. One report at Politico, titled “How Obama’s Debate Strategy Bombed,” dissects the possible reasons for President Obama’s lackluster performance:

Multiple party strategists privately attributed Obama’s demeanor to an ailment that frequently affects incumbents: a fear of appearing too aggressive and risking a larger-scale misstep that could transform the campaign. Projecting a calm, reasonable — some said “presidential” — demeanor was the strategy during Obama’s debate-prep sessions outside of Las Vegas.

But as a result, Obama allowed Romney to set the terms for much of their Wednesday night faceoff at the University of Denver. Startling his supporters, Obama did not deliver almost any of the sharpest attacks that have defined his campaign against Romney, dwelling instead on missing details from Romney’s policy proposals. The former Massachusetts governor’s private-equity background, controversial personal finances, views on social issues and recently reported comments, disparaging Americans who do not pay income taxes, went entirely unmentioned.

At AlterNet, commentator Lynn Parramore defended Obama’s approach:

Obama did what anybody paying close attention would have known he would do. He played it safe. And he stuck to a rather dull rhetorical style because — he has a rather dull rhetorical style. Also because that’s what you do when you’re the frontrunner. You don’t say or do anything wild and crazy. You let your opponent jump up and down and make excitable noises. Which is precisely what Romney did. Some have read Romney’s stance as aggressive, others as pushy, but there’s one word that you’re unlikely to hear: “presidential.” Makes for good theatrics. But it won’t win you the White House.

But Chicago Public Media blogger Achy Obejas, usually an Obama supporter, is having none of that. She admonished Obama’s constituency with this:

Obama people, stop pretending. Stop trying to find the silver lining. Drop the crap about how Mitt Romney was a condescending jerk and vague on everything. Yeah, Romney was all that. And you know what? He still spanked Barack Obama in Wednesday night’s debate. Romney was smooth, easy going, clear, ended his sentences on actual periods and just kept jabbing at the president all night long.

Atlantic senior editor Garance Franke-Ruta doesn’t let Obama off the hook for his “snippy,” “downbeat” performance, but she goes deeper in diagnosing the root cause for the president’s poor showing. She writes, “Whoever Obama was when he was elected president has been seared away by two active wars, the more free-ranging fight against al-Qaeda, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, and the endless grinding fights with Washington Republicans — and even, I am sure, activists in his own party.” She goes on to add that folks expecting a late-hour reemergence of the dynamic Obama of 2008 needs to awake from their denial. This Obama, she says, is no longer the new and shiny model from 2008, nor will he ever be again. She says:

Romney has had the luxury of being able to campaign undistracted by a day job. More importantly, he’s been able to campaign undistracted by dealing with anything substantive or difficult in recent years. Campaigns are physically taxing. But the toll of being president is something different again.

His supporters keep wanting Obama to be who he was in 2008. But that’s not who he is anymore.

As for the president, earlier today at a Denver rally he explained the previous evening’s less-than-triumphant proceedings by suggesting Romney caught him off guard. “When I got on to the stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney. [But] the man on stage last night does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney’s decisions … from the last year.” Mocking Romney’s smiling declaration that he would cut funding to PBS, Obama added, “Thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird.”

I’m sure Obama’s supporters are glad that he’s able to find humor in last night’s ugly affair, but one wonders why he didn’t bring some of that snark last night.

After sifting through these and other commentaries, I got into a brief email chat with UrbanFaith columnist Wil LaVeist, who also was puzzled by the president’s flat performance. Here’s a bit of our discussion:

ED: What the heck happened last night?

WIL: President Obama was so flat with his style points during the debate, that I’ve got to give him the benefit of the doubt that it’s a plan. He’s either: 1) Working a “rope-a-dope” strategy where he’ll knock Romney out later when it really counts, or  2) He was thinking too much about candlelight dinner with Michelle for their 20th wedding anniversary.

ED: My wife said the same thing about the Obamas’ anniversary, but c’mon. The president’s whole life is spent multitasking — balancing the running of the country with the mundane tasks of telling the kids to do their homework and making sure he remembers the card and flowers for the anniversary. So, I can’t buy that one. But the rope-a-dope idea has merit. I’ve got to believe he was intentionally pulling punches last night. He seems to be working some sort of strategy, but did it possibly backfire? It’s awfully close to Election Day to be taking those types of calculated risks.

WIL: If Obama’s doing the rope-a-dope strategy, his aim is to strike fear in his Democratic base so that they’ll realize this election won’t be a cakewalk by any means. Democrats became lax in the 2010 midterm elections and the Tea Party-led GOP dominated. So the implicit message to the base is probably “Wake up, stand up, and get out the vote, like you did in 2008! Romney-Ryan is a stronger ticket than McCain-Palin. I need your help!”

ED: So, do you see him rebounding in round two, or is this the Obama we get now?

WIL: I think Obama will drop all of the obvious power punches (47 percent, flip-flopper, etc.) on Romney in the next two debates, but he will still need a strong voter turnout to win. On the other hand, if the Prez was distracted last night and thinking about Michele … well, as a married guy I can’t blame him. However, Michelle will always be his first lady. If he’s not careful, she won’t be ours much longer.

Much more will be said about last night between now and the next debate. And once the new round of poll numbers starts appearing, the pundits will have even more fodder with which to fill their cable news segments. But, if nothing else, last night’s debate should remind us of one thing: nothing is decided until the polls close on the evening of Nov. 6.

Neutralizing Racist Emblems

Neutralizing Racist Emblems

Americans need a crash course in how to argue.

Inundated by partisan “screaming head” content daily on cable TV and blogs and social networks, we need a refresher on respecting opposing views for a healthy public discourse.

As a college English professor, I’ve been wondering about this as I witness my freshman composition students struggle to explain opposite viewpoints in essays. But after reading about Byron Thomas, a 19-year-old University of South Carolina freshman, I’m encouraged.

Thomas, who is black, hung a Confederate flag in his dorm room window after researching its meaning. Initially there were no complaints, but then university administrators asked him to take it down for violating the school’s anti-racism code. Thankfully, they came to their senses and reneged, realizing they were violating his right to free speech.

The Confederate or Rebel Flag is what Southern states that seceded from the Union fought and lost under during the Civil War against the North. The war was complex, but hinged and swung on slavery, especially as black men joined the Union army, helping to turn the tide toward victory. For many, the defeated Confederate Flag remains a symbol of racism and white supremacy.

In a video blog post, Thomas explained that he understands this history and respects blacks and whites who have fought and died for justice and equality. He believes the flag was co-opted by racists and chooses to see it as a symbol of states’ rights and smaller federal government. Besides, the near extinction of Indians happened under the American Flag, as well as slavery, sexism, legal segregation and the discrimination and racism that remain today. Thomas’ point is that these are shackles of previous generations and he wants his Millennials to have their turn with the banner for a better future. Move forward by changing what old symbols mean.

Of course, this is not a popular position for an African American to take, no matter how well reasoned. And just a glance at some of the negative comments at the CNN blog post about Thomas’ story reveals the intensity of emotion on this issue.

Even Thomas’ parents have challenged him on the matter, to the point that he said he was reluctant to raise the flag again because of their disappointment. As a parent of college students, I understand their concern. But as a Gen-Xer who believes in pushing boundaries, I’m impressed with this young man.

Can and should we change the meaning of symbols? Of course. It often happens with our language over time as words, which are merely symbols of meaning, evolve. “Bad” changes to “good.” “Cool” changes from a description of temperature to a description of one’s popularity. “Nigger” becomes “Nigga.” (Well, I don’t know about that one).

But the point is if we listen to each other, and take time to understand opposing views, we could become better informed in our convictions or perhaps change for good. We might find that we share more in common than not. Symbols and meanings are social constructs. They exist in the mind. If we truly strive for peace and understanding, even evil symbols, such as Swastikas or “stars and bars,” can weaken to worthlessness, especially among those who never suffered under them. The cross was a symbol of pain and condemnation, but Jesus turned it into one of ultimate sacrifice and redemption, right?

Well, the risk of what Thomas proposes is that we forget why the symbol was changed. “Choosing” to see the Confederate flag as non-racist also plays to the agenda of those who, in the name of “honoring Southern heritage,” would delete slavery and black pain from the Civil War narrative. This would be particularly devastating if embraced by young blacks — the generation for whom slaves prayed to God to grant a better future. It is our responsibility to honor our ancestors by “never forgetting” and by achieving dreams that for them were deferred.

Perhaps the younger generation could weaken the Confederate Flag by commercializing it. They could sport “Confed Gear” like how those “X” hats and shirts promoting Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcom X went out of style when white kids began wearing them, too. I could be wrong, but it seems Thomas is on the right track in understanding free speech and using it for the public good. He told CNN the following:

“I learned that my generation of people are applauding me and telling me they want to see things different now. I’ve gotten so many friend requests on Facebook. They are encouraging me. The generation before has mixed views about it, strong views. The generation before won’t let us think for ourselves. They had their chance to think and run things but we need to have our chance. We will have our turn to step up to the plate and get out of this mess that we’re in.

“I respect where they are coming from. I’m not saying that what happened didn’t happen. We don’t want history to repeat itself, but I see where they are coming from. They endured things I might never endure, but why do I still have to feel grounded, that I have to endure it? They weren’t allowed to go to school with white people but I am. I have never been to a school without white people. Why can’t my generation start making our own history? I respect every black person for the civil rights movement. I just want us to move on from all of the hatred that’s still dividing us today. I’m tired of us still being divided.”

Son, you are persuasive and I’m proud of you for having the guts to make this sound, thoughtful argument.

Your parents raised you well.

Obama’s Meekness Is Not Weakness

Obama’s Meekness Is Not Weakness

CIVIL SERVANT: President Barack Obama shakes hands with Speaker of the House John Boehner before delivering the State of the Union address earlier this year. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

“The uniqueness of His meekness is too deep to speak / and if you think meekness is weakness try being meek for a week.” – ShaiLinne, “Mic Check 1 2 (featuring Stephen the Levite & Phanatik)”

Let me state a few things up front, so this doesn’t devolve into something from my highly refined, literary alter ego, Captain Obvious (And His Adventures in Missing-The-Point-Ville).

Obviously, President Barack Obama is not Jesus. Our 44th president is not, nor should he be, exempt from criticism. It does not make anyone a bad Christian to publicly criticize his actions or ideas, from either the political right or the left.

So I hope that neither LZ Granderson nor Roland Martin, both professing Christians whom I respect greatly, will take offense when I say that as Christians I think they’re dead wrong about Obama.

Specifically, they’re wrong about how President Obama should respond to House Speaker John Boehner’s latest act of insubordination regarding his upcoming jobs speech.

For the uninitiated, the White House publicly requested a joint session of Congress to assemble on the same day that the Republicans were planning a debate, also surrounding the topic of jobs. In response, Rep. Boehner asked instead for the date to be pushed back, citing security issues.

Don’t cave to Boehner,” pleaded Martin. Then after the White House rescheduled the date. Granderson lamented Obamas failure to respond to a diss to the presidency, as if the primary responsibility of the President of the United States is to avoid being punked. Then Martin lamented further, claiming that the president’s biggest problem is that no one fears him.

I beg to differ.

The primary responsibility of the president is not to show people he’s in charge. His job is to lead people as effectively and prudently as possible. It’s not that he “needs a spine transplant,” and is therefore incapable of standing up for himself. It’s that when it came to this particular issue at this particular time, he chose a more expedient path of action.

He doesn’t need to show people who’s boss, because he’s already the boss. Posturing is what one does when they’re auditioning for the role campaigning for the job. But as the POTUS, Obama must be the boss. He has a very complex and subjective set of priorities to address and keep in balance at all times. It shouldn’t be a surprise that saving face wouldn’t be the highest thing on his list. 

The Uniqueness of Meekness 

Consider the example of the Christ Jesus to whom Obama has publicly, repeatedly declared his fidelity.

Jesus often gets a bad rap in our popular culture for being weak and effeminate (which is one of the reasons why preacher Mark Driscoll is so popular, but that’s for another column). If you read your Bible, though, you’ll see that nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus was constantly challenging and confounding both the religious and political establishment. When he felt like street vendors were making a mockery of the faith, he destroyed their operation. There was a reason why they eventually conspired to kill him.

However, Jesus was not the revolutionary that his followers expected. He never made a play for political office. At the point where his followers thought they were on the brink of an armed revolution, Jesus rebuked one of them for resorting to violence. And then he acquiesced to his accusers, knowing full well the result would be a sham of a trial followed by a brutal crucifixion.

If I would’ve been one of Jesus’ disciples during this time, I’m sure the sense of frustration and disappointment in the air would’ve been absolutely palpable.

Why is he letting them DO THIS?!?!

Jesus was not happy about the events that had transpired. A bit earlier, He prayed to the Father for another way out. But in the end, He chose to be obedient, knowing that there was a larger objective that He was given to fulfill, one that required enduring the cross and all of its horrors.

Believing what Christians do about the resurrection, it’s hard to argue with the result.

When Jesus said “blessed are the meek,” in the Sermon on the Mount, the Greek word he used that we translate today as “meek” is one that referred to a sense of a great strength under useful control. It’s like a fierce fire that could warm a great castle, but that could just as easily be reduced to a pilot light. Or like a wild stallion capable of galloping 100 miles an hour, lightly sauntering under the master’s control.

Meekness is anything but weakness.

Strength Under Control

Meekness is keeping your cool because losing it could jeopardize the prize ever set before you.

It’s the difference between I’m-doing-this-because-I-can and I’m-doing-this-because-I-should.

In my opinion, this is the kind of strength under control where President Obama excels. Sure, it was disrespectful for Boehner and House Republicans to respond the way they did. And sure, Obama probably felt more than little vindictive about it. But Obama has a larger set of priorities in mind, among them being re-election in 2012. And acting out of a desire to be vindicated is something that might win the battle but lose the war.

So no, he’s not Jesus. And no, he’s not infallible.

But if you’re a Christian, and you think Obama is weak just because he chose not to flex his muscles over a scheduling conflict, then either you don’t read your Bible, or you haven’t been paying attention.