Taking Stock of the First Presidential Debate

October 5, 2012

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President Obama and Governor Romney. | Photo courtesy of Malwack via Wikimedia Commons

Over the years there has been much discourse on the role debates play in affecting the outcome of presidential elections.  Only three elections are believed to have been swung by debates (1960, 1980, 2000), and the widely accepted belief is that for the most part, voters already have their minds made up. Audiences tune in to root for their candidate of choice, and the few that remain undecided are just as often swayed on candidates’ policy talk as on their demeanor.

Obama entered Wednesday’s debate held at University of Denver leading by a wide margin over Mitt Romney. Obama is currently projected to earn around 300 electoral votes (270 are needed for victory) and has a lead in 27 states, with gains increasing in almost every swing state. Entering Wednesday, Obama simply had to stay the course and avoid major gaffes, while perhaps reminding the public of Romney’s various missteps on the campaign trail over the last few months. On the other hand, Romney would have to excel and portray a charisma and empathy that has been markedly absent from his campaign thus far.

The debate topics were largely focused on the economy and how it played into healthcare, education, and the national debt.  Obama emphasized the gains made over the last four years, including recovering housing and auto industries as well as the 5 million jobs created in the private sector. Romney was quick to throw out statistics on the high number of unemployed, while Obama repeated a different figure: Romney’s plan proposes a $5 trillion tax cut. The veracity of these numbers and several others that each candidate threw out has been called into question.

Romney was quick to combat the President’s words, repeatedly emphasizing that he was not proposing a tax cut, but a scaling back of rates while simultaneously closing loopholes and reducing deductions. In this way, he plans to erase the national debt and help revitalize the struggling economy. Yet Obama correctly pointed out that Romney has repeatedly declined requests to reveal exactly how this plan would work, and which specific loopholes and deductions would be reworked. “Part of being a leader involves saying exactly what you plan to do,” Obama told his challenger.

Both candidates made it a point to emphasize a few similar ideas. On the topic of bipartisanship, Romney repeatedly mentioned his work with a predominantly Democratic legislature as Governor of Massachusetts, while Obama said he worked across the aisle to make cuts for ineffective government programs and create a new healthcare system. To try to put a human face on the affairs, both men were sure to mention the everyday citizens they had met across the country that would be affected by their policy changes, including teachers, business owners, and the unemployed. The middle class was incessantly addressed, the goals of both men being an ultimate resuscitation of the class as which most Americans identify themselves. Obama and Romney both hearkened back to more successful days for their parties, offering that they would instill policies from Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan respectively.

In their closing statements, Obama reiterated his faith in American “grit and determination.” “My faith in the American people is undiminished,” he said, and stressed that he plans to channel the American spirit and create opportunities for all. He recalled the gains he has made over the last four years, saying, “If you vote for me, I promise I’ll fight just as hard in the second term.”

Romney closed out the debate by discussing his “concern for America.” He argued that Obama would create a middle-class squeeze and exaggerate current problems. Romney, on the other hand, would create 12 million new jobs and “keep America strong and get the middle class working again.”

Throughout the night, Romney came off as the aggressor, repeatedly interrupting and talking over moderator Jim Lehrer to refute Obama’s statements. He presented his responses in numbered lists and offered several premeditated buzz words, like Obama’s “trickle down government” and a current “economy tax.”  However, the Republican candidate pulled no punches and was quick to underline the president’s weaknesses and perceived lack of economic progress.

Though more laid-back and thoughtful in his responses and attitude, Obama seemed curiously passive in the debate, at times praising his opponent and pointing out issues on which their views were similar. On a night that focused so much on the economy, no mention was made of Romney’s now-infamous 47 percent comments or his background at Bain Capital.  Similarly, there was no mention of the blocking of many bills by congressional Republicans, including Obama’s proposed American Jobs Act. Though he avoided any major missteps, Obama could have afforded to revive some of the dynamism of his 2008 campaign.

A CNN poll after the debate showed that 67 percent of Americans believed Romney had “won” the debate, compared to 25 percent for Obama.  Though this is a surprising margin for Romney, there is a long history of incumbent presidents losing their first debate and still winning re-election. To put it simply, it’s harder to play defense than it is to attack, as there will always be problems in the country that need to be addressed. It remains to be seen whether this will result in an actual change in votes. In a race that seemed a foregone conclusion, the Romney campaign is hoping that Wednesday’s performance means their hopes are still alive.