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The first presidential debate

Robert Reich, professor of public policy | October 4, 2012

In Wednesday night’s debate, Romney won on style while Obama won on substance. Romney sounded as if he had conviction, which means he’s either convinced himself that the lies he tells are true or he’s a fabulous actor.

But what struck me most was how much Obama allowed Romney to get away with: Five times Romney accused Obama of raiding Medicare of $716 billion, which is a complete fabrication. Obama never mentioned the regressiveness of Romney’s budget plan — awarding the rich and hurting the middle class and the poor. He never mentioned Bain Capital, or Romney’s 47 percent talk, or Romney’s “carried-interest” tax loophole. Obama allowed Romney to talk about replacing Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act without demanding that Romney be specific about what he’d replace and why. And so on.

I’ve been worried about Obama’s poor debate performance for some time now. He was terrible in the 2008 primary debates, for example. Expectations are always high — he’s known as an eloquent orator. But when he has to think on his feet and punch back, he’s not nearly as confident or assured as he is when he is giving a speech or explaining a large problem and its solution. He is an educator, not a pugilist, and this puts him at a disadvantage in any debate.

Romney stayed on script. If you look at a transcript of his remarks you’ll see that he repeated the same lines almost word for word in different contexts. He has memorized a bunch of lines, and practiced delivering them. The overall effect is to make him seem assured and even passionate about his position. He said over and over that he cares about jobs, about small businesses, and ordinary Americans. But his policies and his record at Bain tell a very different story.

The question now is whether Team Obama understands that our President must be more aggressive and commanding in the next two debates — and be unafraid to respectfully pin Romney to the floor.

Cross-posted from Robert Reich’s blog.

Comments to “The first presidential debate

  1. I have found that, at least in my circles, who won the debate rests solely on the opinion-giver’s political affiliation. People see, hear, and extrapolate what they want, based on their preconceived notions of they they think is right and/or wrong from the get go. Thanks. JM

  2. Obama didn’t show timidity as much as restraint and maybe disbelief as he watched the lies spewing out of Romney’s mouth. That was no debate as much as it was a sales job by Romney.

  3. My heart goes out for Obama. How do you wrestle such a sleek and slippery opponent? It was not unlike coming to debate an atheist and as soon as the debate starts he says “I never said that I do not believe in God…” and then proceeded to either repudiated or oiled his way out of every of his, his party and his party platform, and his long established, well known, documented, regressive positions… If I was Obama, at the onset of the new Mitt unveiling, I would have scratched my head and say, “Mitt if you really hold all these wonderfully beautiful moderate positions I should have asked you to join our cabinet…”

    Tom Hartmann on his Oct.5th “Big Picture”, (minute 48), revealed the real stagecraft behind Romney Wed. thespian theatrics. His display of “genuine sincere” caring for the 47% should have been submitted for an Oscar consideration…! ( ). Alas, as you will see in this clip, the assumed indignation is not all that original…

    Also, how is it that such a combat ready candidate, eager on exposing enemies, (Russia, Iran China…), a sterling patriot, never volunteered to serve in the Vietnam swamps, where 55 thousands of his age group gave their all? And oh yes, none of his very wonderful, healthy, robust, “All American”, FIVE boys, served, or volunteered to serve in the military?! Of course, for those who never served, It is safe and clearly un-affecting, to be an intemperate hardliner, while luxuriating in Salt Lake City and/or the La Jolla bluffs….!

  4. In my opinion both candidates won on substance. Many voters may get lost in the details of their arguments and come away confused, but I think both candidates presented their fundamental philosophies for governing the country. Obama and his “progressive” party want to take us in the direction of European socialism which consequently has much higher tax rates and Romney and his party (which you refer to as regressive) favor lower taxes, and less government control. I think the sticking point for voters is how much government sponsored safety nets do we want to have, keeping in mind they cost money and raise taxes. And by the way, the post debate fact checkers found errors from BOTH candidates, so apparently they were BOTH “lying”.

  5. Does Pres. Obama’s timidity and reluctance to press his points help explain why he is so unsuccessful at getting bills he backs through Congress? I think it does.

  6. While I agree with you that in general, Obama was not as dynamic a debater as Romney was, I really grew tired of Romney’s debate style. As you say, he repeated himself a lot, trying to convince us that he cares about the middle class. He was loud, pushy, and insistant, whereas Obama was trying to have a conversation in a calm and collected manner. And Obama did criticize the Romney/Ryan tax plan. Most of the pundits afterwards have agreed that Romney “won” the debate, but so what? Does that mean that Romney is going to win the election? I don’t think so.

  7. There has been far too much “sky is falling” talk. For one thing, Romneys full time job last four years has bee running for President. Obama has been running a country. I think most adults art enough to find their polling place are stare of that.

  8. Thank you. I’ve been terribly upset about this first debate. You have organized and stated exactly what went wrong. I believe we need some fact checkers at the next debate; give them buzzers to buzz at lies and deceptions. And include some women’s issues next time. Team Obama has to look long and hard at the math- 47%, 52%, Romney’s tax return and $716 billion- and deal with it. In this election, style could be confused with substance, and we could lose a brilliant man to a liar.

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