Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, and President Barack… (Zhang Jun, McClatchy-Tribune )
The identifying characteristic of progressives' syndrome, which I believe psychiatrists have been following since the Truman administration, is their defensiveness about their own policies when they're challenged by Big Business and other stalwarts of the status quo.
It would take a three-day academic colloquium to cover all the manifestations of this condition displayed at this week's debate by President Obama.
Certainly the Obama administration has had its ups and downs since taking office in 2009. But among the achievements benefiting average Americans and businesses of all sizes, one should count these: healthcare reform, which will bring affordable coverage to millions of Americans and has already cut costs and improved access for seniors and young people; the Dodd-Frank Act, which has tightened regulation of mortgage issuers, begun the overdue task of regulating the consumer financial industry, and started to make mega-banks more accountable for the risks they present to the economy; and the stimulus, which has kept millions of Americans from losing their jobs while investing in physical infrastructure and alternative energy projects.
The programs are complicated, their effects nuanced. None is a quick fix, which means they're all vulnerable to being pronounced failures even before they take effect. They require a consistent, full-throated defense — as do Social Security and Medicare, which are also under attack.
Obama's listless performance during the debate didn't even amount to a half-throated defense of initiatives that will set the foundations for broad economic growth in the future. Instead, he allowed his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, to flagrantly misrepresent them. In that respect, he fell far short of the standards set by two of his Democratic predecessors. Bill Clinton would never have let Romney get away with it; nor would the Franklin Roosevelt of 1936, who mocked his GOP opponents for the "smooth evasion" with which they assured Americans: "We believe in social security; we believe in work for the unemployed; we believe in saving homes; cross our hearts and hope to die."
The fact-checking army has been busy over the last few days picking over the more glaring misstatements by both debaters. But they're bound to overlook the more subtle points.
It's proper to observe that staging a point-by-point defense of complex programs is never simple. The advantage always goes to the sniper.
For example, here's how Obama replied to Romney's swipe at the Independent Payment Advisory Board. That's an appointed body created by the healthcare reform act to examine Medicare cost increases starting in 2015 and submit proposals for program changes, which would have to be approved by Congress.
Republicans aim to portray this board as the embodiment of the "death panels" that reform opponents claimed would be in the law; Romney applied the sinister description of "an unelected board ... that can tell people ultimately what treatments they're going to receive." It's nothing of the kind: The law prohibits this board from recommending any rationing of care, benefit restrictions or changes in eligibility.
"What this is," Obama struggled to explain, "is a group of healthcare experts, doctors, et cetera, to figure out, how can we reduce the cost of care in the system overall. What this board does is basically identifies best practices and says, let's use the purchasing power of Medicare and Medicaid to help to institutionalize all these good things that we do."
Did this hold your attention? Mine neither. But you try coming up with a sound bite that would concisely explain that Romney was talking malarkey, and why. And try sounding presidential while doing so.
To be fair, Obama's responses to Romney's statements appear more salient when they appear in the written transcript of the debate than they did on television, on the fly. That's Obama's oratorical failing, and there may be no cure.
There were points, however, where he just let misstatements stand. Some of these passed like flashes in the night, as when Romney stated that "to save Medicare ... we have to have the benefits high for those that are low income, but for higher income people, we're going to have to lower some of the benefits."
That policy — which contradicts Romney's own published Medicare proposal — would do almost nothing to cut Medicare costs. The program's spending skews hugely toward middle and working-class elders: The median income of its beneficiaries was $22,800 in 2006, when 77% of all beneficiaries earned $40,000 or less (including Social Security income). At the other end of the scale, 3% had incomes of $100,000 or more. Cutting their benefits won't move the needle on program costs more than a nanometer.