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I WENT TO FAIRFAX, Virginia, earlier today to watch President Barack Obama accuse his Republican opponent of changing positions so often that he must be suffering from a new medical condition, which Mr Obama named “Romnesia”.
After listing a string of policies on which Mr Romney took a flintily conservative line during the primaries only to tack to the centre now, Mr Obama ended his gag with a last jab at his opponent:
if you come down with a case of Romnesia, and you can’t seem to remember the policies that are still on your website, or the promises you’ve made over the six years you’ve been running for President, here’s the good news: Obamacare covers pre-existing conditions. We can fix you up. We’ve got a cure. We can make you well, Virginia. This is a curable disease.
Watching at the time, I have to say, Mr Obama was funny (you can watch his diagnosis here). The crowd of 9,000 northern Virginians, gathered under stormy skies at George Mason University, cheered. As they left the sports field where the rally was held, you could hear the word “Romnesia” being bandied about.
Now, a stolid, factual analysis would note that Mr Obama was reading from a teleprompter, that the gag was scripted, and that Mr Obama has changed the odd policy position himself over the last four years.
But at the level of pure campaign politics, something striking and simple leapt out at your reporter. Mr Obama looked as though he was enjoying himself. He sounded scornful, his voice cracked as he bellowed a couple of the punch lines. And as he brought the speech to its close, with a line about showing the rest of the world just why the United States is the greatest country on earth, he roared out the last words and—bang—smacked the side of his lectern with his hand, before turning to applaud the stand full of supporters behind him. Nailed it, you could see him thinking.
I am not going to pretend that one gag is going to change the course of the campaign. In fact, watching Mr Obama, the thought that really came to me was: what took you so long? Trailing both the main candidates around America’s swing states, I have seen the president punchy, and seen him wordy. I have seen him really pretty flat, and seen him bellowing like a preacher. But this is, I am pretty sure, the first time I have seen him look really happy to be on the stump.
If he can keep this up, will it matter? Well, it mattered during the first debate, when he visibly did not want to be there.
This is one reason why I love politics. All the money in the world, all the pollsters and ad men and clever consultants cannot eliminate human frailty. Hubris, muddle, paranoia, ignorance, hypocrisy, arrogance, you name it. Under the pitiless scrutiny of a modern democratic contest, in which every person a politician meets is a paparazzo and videographer, their biggest flaws come out eventually, and in ways that can upend a contest, from one moment to the next.
There is a lot that is pretty startling about an American presidential election. But if a candidate can go through that ordeal and emerge even half-intact, it is about as good a test as can be imagined for the appalling burden of the job itself.
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