Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Can Romney and Obama tell the truth -- and win?

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
October 12, 2012 -- Updated 1435 GMT (2235 HKT)
President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney finish their debate in Denver on Wednesday, October 3. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/03/politics/gallery/10-3-debate-prep/index.html'>View behind-the-scene photos of debate preparations.</a> President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney finish their debate in Denver on Wednesday, October 3. View behind-the-scene photos of debate preparations.
HIDE CAPTION
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
The first presidential debate
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis asks, Will voters support a presidential candidate who tells the truth?
  • Ghitis: The answer is obvious; voters demand perfect odds and simple solutions
  • She says Obama recently said he has to feign total certainty in his decisions
  • Ghitis: True charisma and leadership require acknowledging uncertainties

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer/correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns

(CNN) -- Can presidential candidates talk to voters like adults? Will voters support a candidate who tells them the truth? The answer to that question is obvious to anyone who has observed American politics in recent years.

One day -- let us hope it comes soon -- voters will demand that their political leaders present them with a more realistic sense of the possibilities and choices they face. But for now, voters demand perfect odds and simple solutions, and politicians oblige.

President Obama confessed as much in a recent Vanity Fair profile, when he revealed he knows that each one of the decisions he makes as president could turn out wrong. "Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable," he said. "Any given decision you make you'll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn't going to work." But the American public, the president suggested, cannot handle those odds. After you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it.

Despite knowing this, Obama did not project that supreme confidence and simplified arguments in Wednesday's debate. Romney did. That was not the president's only problem, but it was one of the reasons he didn't fare well.

The frustration showed after the debate, when Obama accused Romney of blatant lying in a debate that, like both campaigns, has been rife with distortions. Both candidates twisted the facts. Romney did it to better effect. It's a tragedy for American democracy that the tactic works.

Four years ago, Obama betrayed no doubts that he would succeed in achieving highly ambitious promises. It's harder to speak in dreamy, inspirational platitudes when you've been president for four years, when the prose of real life has not caught up with the poetry of the campaign.

Politics: Mitt's middle of the road makeover

The American political system demands charisma, leadership and boundless optimism, even if they are artificial and hollow.

Some voters tell pollsters that a "strong leader" is one of the most important traits they look for in a candidate. And pollsters track the perception obsessively. But the prevailing idea of what a strong leader is has become manufactured and artificial.

Candidates have to sound self-assured and authoritative, in a version of leadership that resembles more the utterances of Donald Trump in "The Apprentice" than the wisdom of the great politician-philosophers who founded the country.

Real charisma allows leaders to change their mind. But that's different from reshaping your supposed ideology to win different audiences.

Intellectual and political honesty are not Etch-a-Sketch tricks. Romney's penchant for telling one audience one thing and then taking it back when it doesn't suit another audience -- as he just did with his infamous "47%" comments by saying he was "completely wrong" -- does not count as mettle.

In the debate, Obama slipped in his efforts to don that leadership mantle. He even acknowledged that some of the choices are a matter of odds, that the country is a laboratory and we can only hope the experiments will turn out well.

On the economy, he said, "Look, we've tried this; we've tried both approaches," comparing the Bush approach with the Clinton years. Obama took a step toward honesty with the public in suggesting that we can make only an educated guess as to what strategy is likely to work. "In some ways," he said, "we've got some data on which approach is more likely to create jobs and opportunity for Americans."

Evidence, "data." That's not a modern American politician's way of framing a decision. Americans like it when their leaders (and their pundits) are completely sure of what they propose, totally convinced it will work.

Politics: Bad debate, good fundraising and jobs report for the president

Some people believe this is the inevitable way of politics. But it doesn't have to be.

In other countries facing great problems such as high unemployment and shrinking economies, these days, "difficult choices" and uncertain outcomes are the centerpiece of political discussions. Voters are treated as intelligent, responsible adults who have to decide what is the most promising of unpalatable options.

Friday's unemployment figures seemed to support Obama's belief in his economic approach. But they don't erase the uncertainty ahead. In the end, we have competing philosophies for facing a world where countless unexpected challenges are sure to emerge.

It's true. An appearance of self-assurance creates a reassuring aura of competence and charisma. It makes people feel better. People are drawn to those who seem most sure of their ideas. But being more certain does not make you more right.

True charisma and leadership require acknowledging the uncertainties, recognizing the gaps in our knowledge. In the view of presidential scholar Michael Beschloss, they require the courage to tell difficult truths, to make unpopular decisions, to work with people who have different beliefs.

Following the current definition, Romney proclaims with absolute conviction, as he did during Wednesday night's debate, that "the private market and individual responsibility always works best." And he promises to bring 12 million new jobs while guaranteeing without a hint of doubt that if he is not elected, life will get worse, prices will go up, incomes will come down, and American will become weaker.

Opinion: Will improving economy sink Romney?

Four years ago, Obama made promises that today sound just, well, sad.

After his 2008 win in the Iowa caucuses, he told his exhilarated supporters that he would put an end to years of partisan bitterness and pettiness in Washington. He would be the president who would bring "Democrats and Republicans together to get the job done."

As a candidate, Obama could draw a dreamy vision. He would bring red and blue states back together, close down the prison at Guantanamo, fight climate change and genocide. His election, he said, would "mark the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." He even vowed to "reboot America's image in the Muslim world."

Instead, he tackled much greater problems than he had expected even when he exaggerated his competence. The economy, the world, they all proved more complex than the black and white choices of the election. Unemployment is still high. He has made little headway on the environment. Republicans and Democrats remain at each other's throats, and people in Muslims countries are still not fond of America or its president.

In the first debate, candidates again avoided talking about the need to make difficult choices. The talk was of tax cuts, not tax ("revenue" is the euphemism) increases. There are other areas where the choices are difficult and unappealing in foreign and domestic policy.

Voters may feel placidly satisfied when the candidates avoid mentioning the dangers ahead or the hard truths. But beneath the wishful thinking, Americans know that the world is complicated, the economy is challenging, the choices difficult.

Opinion: Romney's demographic bind

A candidate who tells voters he is 100% certain that the choices are clear and his plans will work out is lying, deluded or foolish.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT