The pressure was on Mitt Romney to deliver a strong performance at the first presidential debate before the millions of Americans who tuned in. He showed up with his “A” game. President Obama, some would say, did not.
The Denver debate focused on domestic issues – taxes, the economy, jobs, education, federal spending and the deficit, Medicare, the President’s health care law also known as “Obamacare,” as well as the role of government. Notably absent: immigration and women’s rights.
In each instance, Romney’s answers were aggressive, sharp, and in numerical order, a sign that the nearly two dozens GOP primary debates he survived sharpened his skill and delivery. He smiled, looked at the camera, and even wrested control from debate moderator PBS’ Jim Lehrer to get the last word in.
Romney argued that he would not engage in wasteful spending that would make us more indebted to China (from which we’ve borrowed billions), even if it means cutting funding for PBS, including the moderator’s newscast and Sesame Street’s Big Bird.
"I'm sorry Jim. I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS. I like Big Bird. I actually like you too," declared Romney in one of the most memorable lines of a bland debate (ABC News’s Rick Klein tweeted: “per Sesame Street, Big Bird has no comment b/c he is 6 and does not understand why he's in the news. I'm actually not making this up.”).
In contrast, President Obama slipped into what must have been his demeanor when he taught constitutional law. The incumbent gave lengthy policy explanations and missed opportunities to call Romney out on his inconsistencies. For example, on taxes, the Republican stated he would not cut taxes on the very rich despite wanting to restore the Bush-era tax cuts that are set to expire at the end of this year.
Romney vowed to repeal the President’s financial regulation and health care laws that while controversial, aim through regulations to make the system more transparent and helpful for consumers. But Obama didn’t press the GOP nominee each time to spell out policy specifics, instead choosing a larger argument that was hard for average voters to grasp on a night heavy on statistics better suited for policy wonks.
“Are we going to double down on the top-down economic policies that helped to get us into this mess,” the President asked, “or do we embrace a new economic patriotism that says, ‘America does best when the middle class does best?’”
The President also didn’t demand Romney explain the now notorious “47 percent” comment describing Obama supporters as freeloaders to Republican donors at a Florida fundraiser.
Mr. Romney went into the debate the underdog, trailing the President in varying degrees in the polls, among coveted voters like women and Latinos. But in Denver, President Obama had the harder job. Even addressing the economy alone, he inherited the worst scenario since the Great Depression. But the recovery has been slow on his watch.
The President has to defend his record if he expects a win, especially to undecided voters. Yet with last night’s lukewarm performance, he may now be behind on making the convincing case for four more years for his agenda to get the country back on track.
Tell Us: Who “won” last night’s debate?
Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief at The Wise Latina Club, is a Washington, DC-based Latina politics columnist. She is also a spokesperson for Project Vote, a non-partisan non-profit, focused on getting out the vote. Read more of Viviana's political posts here.