The first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney was like a heavyweight fight in which momentum distinctly ebbed and flowed. In the end, Romney won solidly on points, pulling away with a strong performance during the debate’s final third while Obama’s energy seemed to flag. Here are six takeaways from the encounter.
1. Romney did what he needed: He probably didn’t upend the race, but he did dislodge the perception that Obama’s current advantage in almost all polls was irreversibly hardening. For most of the evening, Romney was the aggressor while Obama was muted, often windy, and passive: The president passed up repeated opportunities to reprise criticisms of the Republican familiar from his stump speech and television ads. Throughout the evening, Romney – whose own stumbles have dominated the campaign’s past few weeks – succeeded in shifting the focus back to the incumbent (a dynamic that often happens in the first debate). And under that pressure, Obama’s defenses of his decisions frequently wandered. In a race between two candidates who each provide the other with tempting targets, the evening did much more to showcase the incumbent’s vulnerabilities than the challenger’s.
2. Romney was best whenever he could argue that Obama’s record offered no reason to believe the president could produce better results over a second term. The president was strong only in the middle section that allowed him to focus on Romney’s tax and spending priorities. Romney took the opening rounds, with crisp answers on his plan to accelerate job growth, while Obama’s initial responses were diffuse. The debate’s middle section on budget and entitlements was the president's. He effectively made the case that Romney’s tax and budget proposals would require him to raise taxes on the middle-class, cut popular government programs or enlarge the deficit, or some combination of all three. Those exchanges highlighted one of Romney’s major vulnerabilities: His determination not to include additional revenue in any budget deal (and to further cut tax rates) requires him to promise reductions in federal spending that polls show face deep resistance. But in the final sections, Romney again seemed stronger, both in making a brisk philosophical case when asked to define the role of government and, more importantly, pressing his most powerful argument of the night: that the president’s direction was simply not succeeding. “We know that the path we are taking is not working,” Romney said in a tight summation of his argument. “It’s time for a new path.” Meanwhile, Obama offered only the broadest sense of what he would seek to achieve in a second term, continuing what has been one of the principal weaknesses in his campaign.
3. Romney effectively bifurcated his message between ideological and pragmatic objections to Obama. On the one hand, Romney repeatedly affirmed small-government Republican beliefs, particularly in his sustained attack on the president’s health care reform. (At one point, Romney insisted, “The private market and individual responsibility always work best.”) But Romney also targeted less ideological voters with his central argument, which focused less on the philosophical underpinnings of the president’s approach than on the results it has delivered.
4. For Democrats, surely the strangest pattern of the evening was Obama’s repeated decision not to raise arguments his campaign commonly makes against Romney. At no point during the debate over federal spending and taxes, for instance, did Obama argue that Romney’s public priorities reflected the values he displayed in his career at Bain Capital -- the centerpiece contention of his campaign’s television advertising campaign. Nor did Obama raise Romney’s comments about the “47 percent” when asked to differentiate their views about the role of government. Obama certainly delivered an extended intellectual case against Romney’s tax plan, and its implications for popular federal programs -- and delivered a strong jab when he tied Romney’s approach to the meager economic growth under George W. Bush and his own to Bill Clinton’s. But the president’s decision not to deliver the most powerful personalized arguments his campaign has deployed against Romney was a missed opportunity. On several issues, Obama seemed more determined to hug Romney – to blur their differences – than to sharpen distinctions. Those who feared the president would not arrive in fighting trim four years after his last debate mostly had their fears validated.
5. For all that Romney achieved during the evening, he probably generated future headaches with answers that questionably portrayed his own plans. He insisted, “I don’t have any plan to cut education funding” when his plan to limit domestic federal spending to 16 percent of the economy would require large reductions in all federal programs. And he doubled down on his commitment to a position that many analysts believe is mathematically impossible: that he can cut marginal tax rates by 20 percent for all earners without reducing the share of the tax burden paid by the rich, increasing the deficit, or raising taxes on the middle class. One of Obama’s best moments in a largely listless evening came when he argued that Romney was avoiding specifics on several of his key proposals because the public will not like them. That may be the one valuable theme that emerged from the debate for Obama.
6. The new format of sustained discussion on a single issue was a major improvement on earlier debates. But moderator Jim Lehrer didn’t help the candidates with broad, unfocused questions that were probably intended to provide them a blank chalkboard on which to draw but frequently failed to sharpen their disagreements. By repeatedly asking the men nothing more specific than whether they disagreed on subjects about which they have vividly expressed disagreement for nearly two years, he permitted a discussion that was often repetitive.