Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

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

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
updated 10:35 AM EDT, Fri October 12, 2012
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
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT