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article imageOp-Ed: Analysis of First Presidential Debate

By Sadiq Green     Oct 4, 2012 in Politics
Denver - The first presidential debate of the fall campaign took place last night at the University of Denver. Neither President Obama or Mitt Romney landed a knockout blow or commited the sort of serious blunder that would instantly change the presidential race.
For some voters, Wednesday's debate was Romney's first real opportunity to make an impression. As the challenger, Romney was tasked with showing voters what distinguished him from the president and his policies, and how his own ideas would make the country better off. The debate also offered the Republican nominee an opportunity to display his personality, which at times can appear stiff or halted when portrayed in news coverage.
The debate marked nearly five years since Obama and Romney have appeared together in person. President Obama recently played down any advantage that he might hold by suggesting he is not a great debater while also acknowledging Mr. Romney’s command of issues. The Romney campaign was also downplaying their candidate’s expectations publicly, while expressing that he needed a strong debate performance to change the dynamics of the race.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie boldly predicted Romney would have a strong showing, and declared the narrative of the race would change Thursday morning. He may well be right as widespread judgment by the news media and pundits is that Mitt Romney beat President Barack in their first debate.
Faced with several recent polls showing Romney falling behind, the GOP candidate may have bought himself some added time after Wednesday's debate, where Romney was on the offensive against President Obama and moderator Jim Lehrer, of PBS Newshour, who played a subdued role over the course of the evening. Likely aided by the debate commission’s decision to reveal the topics beforehand, Romney’s responses appeared crisp and well-rehearsed. Though he may have not offered details about his plans that political pundits and voters wanted, Romney hit his marks in a way Obama was not able to.
Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joshua Green points out that, “someone tuning in for the first time, would surely have come away feeling that Romney was the candidate with a firm grasp of what he wanted to do and Obama the guy slightly out of his depth.” The New York Daily News’ Joshua Greenman writes, Romney was “more incisive, more fluid and good-natured through it all,” and managed to be tough “without being vicious or disrespectful.”
Early on Obama knocked Romney for proposing a tax plan that cuts federal government programs but does not include tax increases on the wealthy. He criticized the former governor for not providing specifics about his own plan for tax reform, pointing out that Romney’s initiative would raise taxes on middle-income families by $2,000 and lower them for millionaires, and increase the deficit by 5 trillion dollars. Romney continually stated that his plan would not do that.
MITT ROMNEY: “First of all, I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don’t have a tax cut of a scale that you’re talking about. My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class. But I’m not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high- income people. High-income people are doing just fine in this economy. They’ll do fine whether you’re president or I am.”
Obama pressed that there was no way to achieve sound deficit reduction without what he called a "balanced approach" that includes tax increases and spending cuts, forcing Romney to double down on a policy against raising taxes under any circumstances.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: “Well, for 18 months he’s been running on this tax plan. And now, five weeks before the election, he’s saying that his big, bold idea is “never mind.” And the fact is that if you are lowering the rates the way you describe, Governor, then it is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high-income individuals to avoid either raising the deficit or burdening the middle class. It’s -- it’s math. It’s arithmetic.”
The debate may be remembered for what wasn't said: Obama never unleashed some of his campaign's main attack lines against Romney. There was no reference to Romney's caught-on-tape condemnation of 47 percent of Americans as dependent on government handouts, for instance.
US President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney at the start of the first of three p...
US President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney at the start of the first of three presidential debates
TV screengrab
Obama already faced a challenge regarding the economy. After four years the unemployment rate remains above 8 percent and the national debt now tops over $16 trillion. Indeed, the president inherited a sizeable debt, but Obama had to make the case that his policies were the right ones without merely saying "it could have been worse." If the end of his first term is a performance review and the debates are his time to make a defense, it's crucial for him to hit his marks.
In a race in which more than 90 percent of the electorate has said to already have made up their minds, both of the candidates' remarks over the course of the debate were intended for the ears of the undecided voters living in swing states. Each in their own way made pitches to these prospective supporters, while still giving confidence to their respective bases that they would not veer from their principles.
National polls show the race for the popular vote is at a near dead-heat just a month before the election, and Romney could face a deficit of support in areas he must win to best the president.
Wednesday night Romney made a solid first step. For Barack Obama this debate wasn’t about getting into some sort of ugly street fight. Voters like Obama exactly because he doesn’t do that. For Obama this debate was about who is more trustworthy. Voters trust Obama more than Romney. Mitt Romney tried to put a dent in that tonight, but when a candidate who voters think is dishonest gets caught telling lies to the American people, it is a problem.
US President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney at the start of the first of three p...
US President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney at the start of the first of three presidential debates
TV screengrab
While the reportedly weak performance by Obama will certainly have liberal hands wringing and conservatives triumphant, Mitt Romney failed to score a decisive blow. Romney may have given his best performance tonight, but his best was not enough to beat Barack Obama. Mitt Romney needed a decisive win here, but he didn’t say anything that would change anybody’s mind about him. President Obama did show some rust in the first half of the debate, but rebounded in the second half.
Romney failed to deliver any specifics, and was more of a fact checker in attack mode. Fact checkers are going to have a ball checking Romney over today, as Romney’s used his closing statement to lie about President Obama and change his previously stated positions on the campaign trail. Romney is banking on the American people forgetting what he’s said throughout his campaign and be fooled by those lies. For much of the contest, both Obama and Romney spent a lot of time working to fact check the other.
As predicted by the news coverage last night, widespread judgment is that Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama in their first debate. It should be noted these are the same people who thought McCain and Palin performed really well in their debates in 2008. President Obama certainly looked like a man who has not debated in any forum, save the White House press corps, while Romney's last debate was in spring.
The candidates will face each other twice more before Election Day, for a town hall-style debate in New York on Oct. 16 and a final contest over foreign policy in Florida on Oct. 22.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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