The first debate: Obama flops, Romney surprises

Mitt Romney

by Corinne Cathcart

Last night, President Barack Obama and GOP candidate Mitt Romney met face to face for the first presidential debate of three. While Romney brought energy, likability, and specific facts to the table (which his campaign desperately needed), Obama’s performance fell flat. Contrary to popular expectations, Romney’s performance was engaging and impassioned. Expectations were probably so low because of Romney’s wooden and awkward performances at a majority of the primary debates back in January, but his practice seems to have paid off.

The success of Romney’s performance lay in his ability to act aggressively towards Obama while coming across as more likable than we’ve ever seen him. Right off the bat, Romney cracked a joke about the unfortunate fact that Obama had to spend his 20th wedding anniversary in a debate — “I’m sure this was the romantic place you could think of to be, here with me.” Even more surprisingly, the joke was actually funny. The crowd, who had promised to remain silent for the debate, laughed out loud at Romney’s remarks. This sudden comic ease comes after a long summer of criticism over Romney’s awkward humor.

But the niceties didn’t last long. With time, Obama clammed up and appeared impatient and disengaged (not to mention unhealthy and tired). Romney, on the other hand, was agile and aggressive about getting his words in. Not only was Romney unafraid to engage Obama, but he also provided answers that seemed far less stale and practiced than his previous stump speeches and appearances. “We need leadership — leadership — in Washington,” he said. This was one of the more simplistic lines in the debate, but Romney’s passion made the words shine.

Romney mostly dominated in the segments that dealt with the economy, even with the occasional strong response from Obama. But one area in which the president and Romney appeared to be well matched was health care. Romney began the segment by making clear that he would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), citing its cost and the role of government in health as the bill’s main weaknesses.

Obama pointed out that the plan Romney passed as governor of Massachusetts was “essentially an identical model”. But Romney cleverly attributed the bill’s success to bipartisan cooperation, in contrast to Obama’s method of pushing through a plan “without a single Republican vote.” Obama replied simply, “This was a bipartisan idea. In fact, it was a Republican idea,” noting that Romney had previously said that the Massachusetts bill could be “a model for the nation.”

Despite Romney’s apparent edge throughout the debate, Obama also made strong arguments and put Romney on the defensive at times. Obama played on an existing critique of Romney’s campaign: that Romney is not giving enough specifics. Obama added, sarcastically, “at some point, I think the American people have to ask themselves, is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they’re too good?” The president, however, didn’t manage to maintain any momentum which he had built, and his attitude and behavior seemed partially to blame.

Body language was a clear indicator of the contenders’ attitudes. Romney kept his eyes mostly on the president, his body forward and his voice strong. Obama, on the other hand, trailed off in some of his narratives. He spent a good deal of time looking at his podium notes, especially when facing attacks by Romney. The president’s body language gave an impression of apathy. His behavior may even have taken some of the wind out of his stronger arguments.

The debate format and moderator also played a significant role in the debate. Unlike past debates — such as those during the Republican primaries with the buzzers, 30-second rebuttals and specific questions — last night’s debate had a much looser format. The debate was split into six segments – the first three on the economy, the last three on health care, the role of government, and governing, respectively.

In the first four minutes of each segment, the president and his challenger were supposed to give two-minute answers to a start-off question, leaving the remainder of the segment for a back-and-forth discussion. The format may have been sound in theory, but resulted in long, trailing answers and many disregarded time limits. Romney tended to use his extended time to form long lists, listing off bullet point-like responses to the issues Obama brought up. Obama tended to rattle off narratives about Americans across the country. Unfortunately for the president, most of those stories didn’t seem to connect.

The night’s poorest performance may well have been that of moderator Jim Lehrer, of “PBS NewsHour,” who seemed to have little control over the candidates. Periodically, we could hear his attempts at interjection, which, near the end of the 90-minute debate, seemed more like whimpers. While Lehrer may have been too polite in allowing the candidates to exceed the time limits, the debate’s looser format certainly aggravated the situation.

Both candidates had awkward moments of interaction with Lehrer. After Lehrer told the president he had run out of time on an answer, Obama shot back, “I had five seconds before you interrupted me.” At one point, Romney said to Lehrer, “I’m sorry, Jim. I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS… I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you too.” (This was also a popular line in the Twitterverse, with people tweeting about their sympathies for Lehrer and the bizarre mention of a “Sesame Street” character.) Lehrer’s own insecurities regarding the success of the debate’s format became apparent when, near the end of the debate, he commented, “I’m not going to grade the two of you and say you’ve — your answers have been too long or I’ve done a poor job.”


photo of Mitt Romney by Gage Skidmore: