The first presidential debate proved what the American people had plenty of opportunities to discover in the past few years: that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are not eager to risk being caught saying a provocative phrase.
In the 90 minutes they spent on stage at the University of Denver sports arena, the two opponents avoided making eye contact; both had a similar tense smile, attacking each other's policies while defending their own, but mainly left the public craving for a punchline. However, it should be noted that the two made a sincere effort to be nice to each other – their initial warm handshake was quite convincing.
President Obama began by wishing a happy 20th anniversary to his wife, Michelle, who was sitting in the audience."20 years ago I became the luckiest man on earth because Michelle Obama agreed to marry me," he said. "And so I just want to wish you, sweetie, a happy anniversary, and let you know that a year from now we will not be celebrating it in front of 40 million people." Romney was gallant enough to spend a few precious debate seconds on congratulating his rival: "I'm sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine - here with me," he added jokingly.
But the fun and jokes ended there. Obama soon began reminding the American people that he inherited the "worst financial crisis since the Great Depression," but now the U.S. is on its way back up, though there is still work to be done. Obama basically framed the discussion by asking who of the two candidates would better lead the middle class to recovery.
Romney borrowed his rival's favorite technique, evoking the troubles of some ordinary people he met along the campaign trail. Unlike what President Obama claims, Romney said, his proposed economic plan is not "a top-down, cut taxes for the rich." Instead, Romney said, his plan focused on energy independence (including off shore drillings in Alaska and adopting "clean coal"), opening up trade, saying he would "crack down on China if and when they cheat," improving the education system, balancing the budget and supporting small businesses. A comic relief was noted at some point, when Obama said that Romney defines billionaire Donald Trump as a small business, adding that "Trump doesn't like to think of himself as small anything."
Echoing former president Bill Clinton's speech last month at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, Obama claimed the math behind Romney's economic plan doesn't add up, naming it "a $5 trillion tax cut, on top of the extension of the Bush tax cuts," also highlighting a $2 trillion in additional military spending. "How [do] we pay for that, reduce the deficit and make the investments that we need to make without dumping those costs on the middle-class Americans?" he asked.
Romney promised that if elected, he would not raise taxes for the middle class "under any circumstances," while Obama insisted that there is no way around it – increasing the deficit or calling off tax-cuts for the wealthy. "That kind of top-down economics," Obama said, is "not what I believe is a recipe for economic growth."
During the debate, ex-president Clinton's name was mentioned four times (when Obama made an example of his economic policy), while former president Ronald Reagan's name was mentioned 3 times.
An awkward - though possibly manufactured - moment for Romney was noted when he accused the president of misinterpreting his economic policy. "Look," Romney turned to Obama and said, "I got five boys. I'm used to people saying something that's not always true but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I'll believe it - but that is not the case, all right? I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans."
Two other key issues raised by the contenders were the 'role of the government' and regulation. Obama, claiming that the economic crisis "was prompted by reckless behavior," told viewers that if they think overregulation of Wall Street was the problem, then they should vote for Governor Romney. Romney retorted, saying he "wouldn't designate five banks as too big to fail and give them a blank check... it's killing regional and small banks."
After taxes and the state of the economy, the biggest clash was over Obama's healthcare reform, which Romney vowed to repeal. Quoting the Congressional Budget Office, Romney stated that the new healthcare system "will cost $2,500 a year more than traditional insurance." In response, the president reminded, yet again, that 'Obamacare' was essentially an "identical" to the model Romney signed into law while serving as the Governor of Massachusetts. Romney agreed, but added that these decisions should be left for the states, to which Obama replied that when doing so, "some people end up not getting help."
After spending many months flirting with the Republican right wing, on the first debate he seemed to finally inch back to the center, speaking of bipartisanship. "I like the way we did it in Massachusetts," he said, "I like the fact that in my state we had Republicans and Democrats come together and work together." In attempt to paint Romney's idyllic picture of bipartisan cooperation in different colors, Obama reminded his opponent that repealing "'Obamacare' will not be very popular among Democrats."
In his closing statement, Obama repeated his traditional message that he wants everybody to have a fair shot, play by the same rules. "Four years ago I said that I'm not a perfect man and I wouldn't be a perfect president... But I also promised that I'd fight every single day on behalf of the American people and the middle class and all those who are striving to get in the middle class. I've kept that promise and if you'll vote for me, then I promise I'll fight just as hard in a second term."
Winning the coin toss, the former governor got to say the last words, in which he chose to describe his view of Obama's second term in office, if re-elected. "You'll continue to see a middle-class squeeze with incomes going down and prices going up. You'll see chronic unemployment… You're going to see health premiums go up by some $2,500 per family. If I'm elected, we won't have 'Obamacare'... If the president's re-elected, you'll see dramatic cuts to our military… I will keep America strong and get America's middle class working again."
Focusing on domestic issues, the Middle East was only mentioned one, during the last five minutes of the presidential debate, when Romney, listing the challenges the U.S. is facing (while adding it lacks the leadership), said: "What's happening in the Middle East? There are developments around the world that are of real concern."
But the Middle East, along with other troubled regions, are expected to be raised in the vice presidential debate, which will take place on Thursday, October 11 in Danville, Kentucky, and also in the two remaining presidential debates.
Romney, many would agree, debated well. But while during one of the Republican primaries events several months ago, a Newt Gingrich's supporter declared she is "salivating to see him debating Barack Obama." Today, with the first debate behind us, it's hard to say whether many Americans are "salivating" while waiting to witness two more academic-style debates.
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