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By Gil Troy, Toronto Star 10-11-12

SAUL LOEB/AFP/GETTY IMAGES US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney participate in the first presidential debate last week. (Oct. 3, 2012)

The fact that the first U.S. presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney changed the campaign narrative so dramatically reflects just how volatile the American electorate’s feelings are in 2012.

Before the first debate last week, reporters seemed ready to declare Romney’s campaign dead — more than a month before election day, Nov. 6. But after nearly 70 million Americans watched Romney dominate and Obama retreat, most pundits and many polls declared the race on again — and extremely close.

This abrupt plot reversal also confirms what should be any American patriot’s and any westerner’s fear regarding this campaign — that neither candidate will win this electoral contest; one of them simply will not lose. To face its many economic, political, diplomatic and structural challenges, the United States needs a strong, effective leader with a clear, affirming mandate. But the current president, enduring high unemployment and an anemic recovery, is facing voters with his negatives at historic highs for electioneering incumbents. And his challenger, handicapped by public skepticism and a divided Republican party, is going into the election with his popularity at historic lows for any major party nominee.

The huge television audience for the debate showed that Americans recognize this election’s importance and their own doubts about both candidates. Americans like falling in love with politicians. Obama’s 2008 Hope-and-Change euphoria was not only about Barack Obama’s eloquence and political pixie dust; it was about Americans seeking redemption through inspiration. Unlike the Canadian prime minister, the American president is both head of state and head of government, concentrating tremendous power and symbolism in one office. And the American story is one of high ideals and great faith in tomorrow.

A visit to the Tower of London the day after the debates reinforced this notion. Until the modern era, much of British history, with its succession wars between relatives, was a story of ruthless power struggles motivated by greed, jealousy and ambition, illustrated by beheaded queens, a Bloody Tower, the Traitors Gate. American mudslinging in campaign commercials, pamphlets and speeches does not measure up. American rhetorical daggers and blackened reputations are simply no match for severed British heads impaled on a stick.

Moreover, underlying most U.S. political campaigns — including this one — are fundamental questions about what Americans believe, how they see themselves and who they want to be.

During the debate, the two candidates kept clashing over the nature of American government.

Romney said: “In my opinion, the government is not effective in — in bringing down the cost of almost anything. As a matter of fact, free people and free enterprises trying to find ways to do things better are able to be more effective in bringing down the costs than the government will ever be.”

Obama then affirmed his belief that “the federal government has the capacity to help open up opportunity and create ladders of opportunity and to create frameworks where the American people can succeed.” Invoking the great American martyr, Abraham Lincoln, Obama said his predecessor “understood” that there are “some things we do better together.”

Romney and Obama are not extremists. Romney acknowledged the need for collective action, taxes, even government regulation — unlike his party’s fanatics. And Obama toasted the free enterprise system — unlike his party’s fanatics. Nevertheless, within their narrowed spectrum, serious philosophical differences that would translate into policy differences remain.

Amid this background, Barack Obama’s great debating failure was not in looking down so frequently, as many commentators complained, but in not helping Americans look up enough. Since his inaugural address, when two wars, a possible depression, and terrorist threats weighed down his once lofty rhetoric, Obama has been a more leaden leader than anyone anticipated when he was elected. The challenges are indeed sobering. The needs are pressing. The divisions are increasing. And the crises seem to be proliferating.

Throughout these next three weeks of high-level, first-rate, tough political combat, the memories of the first debate will be upstaged and its impact diluted. Romney and Obama will meet for two more rounds, one in a town hall forum with voters and one final confrontation on foreign policy. But the challenge for each will remain — can Obama provide a vision for a second term that inspires and can Romney offer a rationale for his election beyond not being Obama? Even amid all this trouble, the United States remains the great dream factory of the world, and Americans still want to believe.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and the author of eight books, including Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama.

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