(The Root) — President Obama won Monday night's foreign policy debate. By and large, Mitt Romney just endorsed existing administration policies. It is at once astonishing and pathetic.
Romney tried to couch his positions in different language, but the substance of what he said is that "the president is doing the right thing." Romney accepted Obama policy on everything, including a withdrawal date from Afghanistan. Amazing. For now, however, I don't care.
The question for me is why is this election so close? Given that the Republican Party adopted the most far-right-wing platform in years, why do the polls show a dead-even contest? Given the Republican nominee — an Etch A Sketch candidate who has flipped and flopped and played with the facts as no other candidate before him — how can this election be so close? Really, I can't sleep. How is this possible?
There are three big problems here. Before I go into them, let me give the obvious answer: It's the economy, stupid! If unemployment were lower, if the economic-growth rate were more robust, an incumbent president would be in no real jeopardy. But that is not the whole issue. And it is these other complicating factors that are worthy of some consideration.
Let's be fair and balanced: Part of the problem is Obama the candidate. Barack Obama has made several missteps that put him in a more vulnerable position. Save for the inaugural address itself, he has not done enough to define for Americans just how gargantuan an economic hole we had fallen into. As a result, the long-term nature of the economic abyss out of which we are slowly but steadily crawling hasn't been clarified often enough for the American people.
Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention was the first mainstream, almost honest discussion of how severe the economic problems facing us actually are and why no president, no matter his or her philosophy or political party, could have solved them in four years' time. Obama should have said as much, clearly, long ago.
Obama took far too long to appreciate that Republican intransigence had reached new, historic and irresponsible levels. Like many folks, I applauded Obama for bringing a new attitude to Washington. I respected his efforts to reach across the aisle. It was a big part of his appeal to bring "change" to politics in Washington.
When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders, however, dedicate themselves to making Obama "a one-term president" and show no sign whatsoever of meaningful negotiation to avert a credit-rating downgrade for the U.S. government and create a debt-ceiling debacle, the time for reaching across the aisle has ended.
And for me, Obama has not been politic. What do I mean by that? He has generally tried to pursue policies that make sense in the long run. Whether in education, the economy or foreign affairs, the president has leaned toward doing what serves U.S. interests in the long run.
This is perfectly reasonable and sensible. But in the world of real electoral politics, it is not enough to be right. You must also have worked to build the political context. You must have a message. For too much of his political agenda, Obama has settled for the substance of being "right" and a single big oratorical event like a State of the Union to get the message across. In this age of nonstop campaign politics, that is simply not enough.
But, you know what? Obama would still be easily ahead in the polls, given the screaming weaknesses of his Republican rival, were it not for two other big problems. Problem No. 2 is the so-called left, or "progressive," voices in U.S. politics.
Nothing disgusts me — and I do mean disgusts — more than liberal critics of Obama. For three years we have seen a left-leaning critique of Obama — whether black or white, or policy experts, preachers or TV talking heads — that is irresponsible and pointless. Irresponsible in that it has been aimed at tearing down Obama and his proposals instead of building a climate for more progressive policies than those the Obama administration has put on the table. Pointless in that even his most vociferous critics on the left have done nothing, so far as I can discern, to build a real, influential alternative within (and certainly not outside) the existing two-party system.
We are two years down the road from the 2010 midterm elections; where is the left-leaning alternative to the Tea Party? It does not exist!
All of those op-eds, speeches and convocations that criticize Obama for not having a large-enough "bailout," for not having a "jobs bill," for not preserving the "single-payer option" in health care-reform legislation, have equally and now plainly failed to advance the interests of the poor and disadvantaged. Instead, they have weakened the one viable political agent this constituency has: Barack Obama.
Most of these political blind men (and they are largely men) awoke after Obama's weak performance in the first debate. Then they finally realized that this election might actually go to the Republicans. Yes, Romney might win. How will blacks, Latinos, working women and the poor fare if that happens?
The third problem, as always, is the media. How the media treat Romney with the credulity and respect that they do astonishes me. If, after this debate — in which Romney both largely endorsed the entirety of Obama foreign policy and contradicted some of his own clear prior positions (such as when to withdraw from Afghanistan) — the press does not bury Romney under an avalanche of criticism and derision, then you will know just how compromised it is. We have arrived at a sad point in political discourse if such misrepresentation and duplicity goes without severe comment and sanction.
So why is this election so close? Yes, the economy has not improved as much as any of us would like. But Obama could have done much more prior to the campaign season to explain why that would be the case, no matter what (as Clinton did at the convention).
Meanwhile, many of his erstwhile allies on the left woke up only recently and figured out that they were adding to the din of negativity that made his re-election less likely, not more so. They've done us all a serious disservice as a result. The media continue to fail in their role of independent fourth estate, capable of dispassionately giving us the news we need to be an informed citizenry.
If you're at all like me, you're anxious and increasingly angry. Yes, Obama won the foreign policy debate. But why should that be so important, given everything else that is just plainly wrong with his adversary and his adversary's agenda?
Lawrence Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and a frequent contributor to The Root.