President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney squared off in their first presidential debate televised Wednesday with the Republican challenger going on the offensive in charging that the president’s economic policies have “crushed” the middle class.
Surprisingly, after his strong showing in the 2008 debates, the president found himself almost muted and on the defensive, sometimes halting in trying to take the fight to the GOP nominee who is trailing in the polls.
With barely a month before the election, Romney appeared more vigorous than at any time in recent months. He was conversational, precise, magnanimous in his treatment of the president and yet credibly critical about the Obama presidency.
In an early sign that it might be his night, the Republican nominee seemed to take away the debate mantle of championing the middle class, grabbing the issue early—important with more than 40 million viewers watching.
“The people who are having the hard time right now are middle income Americans,” Romney said. “Under the president’s policies, middle-income Americans have been buried. They’re just being crushed. Middle-income Americans have seen their income come down by $4,300.
“This is a—this is a tax in and of itself. I’ll call it the economy tax. It’s been crushing.”
Obama attempted to take back the issue by bringing up a familiar charge that Romney would offer more tax breaks for the wealthy.
The president said his alternative would be “a new economic patriotism that says America does best when the middle class does best.”
The presidential candidates, appearing together for the first time since 1994, met at the University of Denver for the 90-minute debate on the economy—the first of three televised presidential debates.
For Romney, the debate offered an opportunity to show himself as an alternative to the president on a side-by-side basis in which each candidate struck a statesmanlike, presidential presence.
For Obama, the debate gave him his first chance to possibly distance himself further from Romney, which is what the polls have shown.
But Romney proved himself a surprising target, often dominating the topics while Obama was shown on a split screen looking tired, frowning and biting his inner lower lip in exasperation.
For the most part, there were no surprises in the economic positions they have long adopted and modified—and neither man made any gaffes, although it was difficult not to laugh when Obama described Donald Trump as a small businessman who would benefit from Romney’s economic plans.
But then, the first comments from most analysts after the debate was that this was not the Obama of 2008 but instead a tentative incumbent who perhaps had chosen to guard his lead by playing it safe.
Obama may have also suffered from moderator Jim Lehrer’s inability to limit candidates to their specified time limits, often losing control to Romney who capitalized on the opportunity.
Romney repeatedly denied Obama’s claim that the GOP nominee wanted a $5 trillion tax cut, saying he wanted to eliminate “deductions, credits and exemptions.”
He rejected charges that his tax plan would favor the wealthy, or make America’s finances worse, saying, “I won’t put in place a tax plan that adds to the deficit.”
Obama said his opponent’s plan would inevitably result in a higher budget deficit or large cuts to federal programs.
“It’s math, it’s arithmetic,” the president said. “That’s not a recipe for job growth.”
But the president failed to dampen the vision Romney was setting out—both about what he said were Obama’s failures and his own alternative.
“Gasoline prices have doubled under the president. Electric rates are up. Food prices are up,’’ Rommey said. “Health-care costs have gone up by $2,500 a family. Middle-income families are being crushed.”
“Look at the evidence of the last four years. It’s absolutely extraordinary. We’ve got 23 million people out of work or stopped looking for work in this country… economic growth this year slower than last year, and last year slower than the year before.
“Going forward with the status quo is not going to cut it for the American people who are struggling today.”
Obama, for the most part, appeared to give Romney a pass on his own most recent gaffes—primarily his claim that 47 percent of voters do not pay taxes and are free-loaders off the government.
More importantly, the president failed to portray Romney as less than a credible alternative.
They disagreed sharply on almost all aspects of the economy—from the national debt to its impact on Obamacare—but the president seemed unable to paint the differences as anything more than partisan positions.
Although defensive of his record, Obama said he inherited the problems from the George W. Bush administration and called up the name of President Bill Clinton as someone to whom he was trying to model his administration.
“When I walked into the Oval Office, I had more than a trillion-dollar deficit greeting me,’’ Obama said. “And we know where it came from: Two wars that were paid for on a credit card; two tax cuts that were not paid for; and a whole bunch of programs that were not paid for; and then a massive economic crisis.
“We’ve begun to fight our way back. But we all know that we’ve still got a lot of work to do and so the question here tonight is not where we’ve been but where we’re going.”