Magazine | October 15, 2012, Issue

Four Years Ago

Obama and McCain during the 2008 presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
Obama, and Biden, in debate

Every four years, we have presidential debates, and it’s that time again. How about a glance back, at a handful of things from 2008? Barack Obama was very, very fluent against John McCain. Seldom has there been a more polished talker on our national stage.

In the three debates, Obama came off as quite conservative, in almost every area. He decried an “orgy of spending and enormous deficits.” He said, “When President Bush came into office, we had a budget surplus, and the national debt was a little over $5 trillion. It has doubled over the last eight years. And we are now looking at a deficit of well over half a trillion dollars.” In 2012, after four years of Obama, the debt is about $16 trillion, and the deficit is almost $1.2 trillion.

“When I’m president,” he said, “I will go line by line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely.” He promised that he would actually cut more than he spent. Listening to him, you might have thought he was running as Calvin Coolidge.

Over and over, he promised to cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans. No one making less than $250,000 would see a tax increase. Everyone making less than $200,000 would see a tax cut. Did it happen? Well, it depends on the meaning of “tax cut.” Obama and his team count “refundable tax credits” as tax cuts. Other people see these credits as good old-fashioned welfare. Then there are the taxes waiting in Obamacare — some of which fall on people in the sacred “middle class.”

In 2008, as in 2012, Obama said he wasn’t proposing anything radical: He’d simply ask the rich to pay “a little more.” Regular folks, he said, “don’t feel as if they are sharing the burden with other folks” — folks who are “living pretty high on the hog.” He was especially hard on “Big Oil.” Polls must have shown that the public disliked oil companies. In his three debates, Obama mentioned ExxonMobil twice. In his one debate against Sarah Palin, Joe Biden mentioned ExxonMobil four times.

On the subject of health care, Obama could not have been more reassuring: “If you’ve got a health-care plan that you like, you can keep it. All I’m going to do is help you to lower the premiums on it. You’ll still have choice of doctor. There’s no mandate involved.” Moreover, “we estimate we can cut the average family’s premium by about $2,500 per year.” This last bit was pure fancy. As for being able to keep your plan if you like it — that’s no sure thing, to put it mildly.

Talking about health care, Obama told the story he has often told, about his mother on her deathbed: how she had to fight with insurance companies, at the worst possible time. Now, you should never dispute someone on his mother, particularly when it comes to her last days. Little could be more unseemly. But even Obama-friendly researchers have said this story is a stretch (to put it mildly).

Over and over, Obama said something that hardly any conservatives would disagree with: “We are a force of good in the world. But there has never been a nation in the history of the world that saw its economy decline and maintained its military superiority.” The debate this year is over how to arrest this decline. Also, some have a bold question, even a rude one: Does the president want to maintain our military superiority?

At every opportunity, Obama knocked and mocked Bush for failing to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. He himself would get the job done, he said. And lo, it came to pass.

Like John Kerry in 2004, Obama disdained Iraq as the Bad War and hailed Afghanistan as the Good War, needing further attention. That’s where the “war on terrorism” (as he was still calling it) should be centered. He made good on his promise to “end” the Iraq War. He seems to have lost interest in the Afghan War, which too will “end,” whatever the conditions there.

On Iran, he was very tough — and very tough on Bush. “Obviously, our policy over the last eight years has not worked,” Obama said. In his own debate, Biden added that Bush’s policy had been “an abject failure.” Obama said, “We cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran,” which would be a “game-changer” in the Middle East. For one thing, it would “threaten Israel, a country that is our stalwart ally.” Obama said he would tell Iran, “If you don’t change your behavior, then there will be dire consequences.” Somehow, the Iranians don’t seem all that worried about President Obama.

In the vice-presidential debate, Biden assured one and all of Obama’s commitment to Israel: “No one in the United States Senate has been a better friend to Israel than Joe Biden. I would have never, ever joined this ticket were I not absolutely sure Barack Obama shared my passion.” Israelis have good reason to be much less sure about this passion.

#page#On Russia, Obama sounded almost as tough as he did on Iran. He said the Russians needed to understand that they couldn’t be a 21st-century power while acting like “a 20th-century dictatorship.” What’s more, he pledged his support to “all the fledgling democracies in that region,” including Poland and the Czech Republic. He even used the word “solidarity” (a significant word for Eastern Europe). When he became president, however, he badly unnerved the Poles and the Czechs by yanking missile defense from them. And he “hit the reset button” with Russia, adopting a policy of accommodation. (This was one of the moves that won him the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.)

In debate, Obama made a statement surprising to a lot of us: “I actually believe that we need missile defense, because of Iran and North Korea and the potential for them to obtain or to launch nuclear weapons.” Once in office, though, he put the brakes on the program. And in March 2012 he was caught on tape in a fascinating exchange with Russia’s Dmitri Medvedev. A number of issues can be “solved,” said Obama, and “particularly missile defense” — but “it’s important for him to give me space.” The “him” was Vladimir Putin, the boss. “Yeah, I understand,” said Medvedev. “I understand your message about space.” Obama continued, “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” Then he patted Medvedev’s arm knowingly and reassuringly. Medvedev said, “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.” What Obama has in mind, in the event he is reelected, is hard to say.

Back in the ’08 debates, Obama identified Venezuela, along with Iran, as a “rogue state.” As president, however, he clasped Hugo Chávez in a soul-brother handshake and called him “mi amigo,” his friend. In debate, he called for a no-fly zone in Sudan. He said that the “international community” should be mobilized. “And that’s what I intend to do when I’m president.” For his part, Biden said, “I don’t have the stomach for genocide when it comes to Darfur. We can now impose a no-fly zone. It’s within our capacity.” Rightly or wrongly, it never happened.

Over and over, Obama and Biden said that America had lost its standing in the world, and that they would restore that standing. America was once respected, they said. No more. With them in charge, America would be respected once again. Is America, in fact, more respected now, after these four years? It would take a funny view of the world — of the Middle East, China, and other places — to believe so.

Obama did his usual dancing around his not-quite-conservative past. His relationship to ACORN was innocent and slight. Bill Ayers, the Weather Underground terror leader, was basically a thoughtful educator, working with a bunch of Republicans. Sure, Obama, as a state legislator, had opposed the Born Alive Act — a bill meant to protect infants who survive an abortion. But he opposed it, said Obama, only because the bill “undermined” Roe v. Wade, and, besides: A similar law was already on the books. (For good measure, Obama added, “Nobody’s pro-abortion. I think it’s always a tragic situation.”) All of this dancing has been discredited, not just by Obama critics, but by some friendlies as well.

In the presidential debates, gay marriage did not come up. It did in the vice-presidential debate, where both Biden and Sarah Palin said they opposed gay marriage. The moderator said, “Wonderful. You agree. On that note, let’s move to foreign policy.” Four years later, of course, both Biden and the president would come out for gay marriage.

On the stage with Palin, Biden offered his usual shtick. He was a Son of the Middle Class, and its Protector. He talked about the car accident that killed his first wife and their daughter. He said, “Vice President Cheney has been the most dangerous vice president we’ve had probably in American history.” He said he was proud to have “led the fight against Judge Bork,” one of President Reagan’s Supreme Court nominees. In doing so, you see, he had safeguarded our “civil rights and civil liberties.”

Meanwhile, Obama presented himself as the champion of civility: “What is important is making sure that we disagree without being disagreeable. And it means that we can have tough, vigorous debates around issues. What we can’t do, I think, is try to characterize each other as bad people.” Last year, Politico quoted “a prominent Democratic strategist aligned with the White House.” This unnamed man or woman said, “Unless things change and Obama can run on accomplishments, he will have to kill Romney.” Obama and his team have tried their best, or worst.

Let’s give the last word to Joe Biden. In his debate, he said, “This is the most important election you will ever, ever have voted in — any of you — since 1932.” Later in the debate, he said, “Look, folks, this is the most important election you’ve ever voted in [in] your entire life.” Look, folks, you could say the same of now.

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