And although we saw Obama win in some areas – namely taxes and the deficit – he struggled to get many of his points across decisively and effectually. We heard more of his stock arguments than the bold vision for the future of our country and spirited defense of his last four years in office that the American public needed to hear from him.
To be sure, Romney was the decisive victor on healthcare. He was able to turn Obama’s key victory from the last four years against him by emphasizing the benefits of his own plan as well as his ability to effectively work with Democrats in Massachusetts. Obama lost focus on the issue and came off visibly shaken by Romney’s analysis of Obamacare. The result was that the President was unable to successfully highlight the benefits of his plan or tout his ability to negotiate with Republicans.
Romney also offered the best argument on the role of government and, crucially, the role of the President in managing the economy. His turn on Obama’s “trickle-down economics” line of attack with the slogan “trickle-down government” proved to benefit him. Indeed, Romney’s criticism of Obama’s plan for “more taxes and more government” will surely resonate well with the public.
Obama did prove to be the stronger candidate on the issue of the deficit. Although he was not an ardent supporter of Bowles-Simpson, which Romney highlighted, his continual emphasis on Romney’s $5 trillion tax cut was effective. He also used the role of history to his advantage, citing Bill Clinton several times and the 23 million jobs he generated as president. Romney’s anecdote about fighting with his five boys was no match for Obama’s defense of his plan on the basis of “math, common sense and our history.”
From the halfway point of the debate onwards, it was very much a Romney victory. Obama seemed to be lacking in clear answers and focus. Although he did open and close the debate very well – relying on the aspects of his stump speech that consistently resonate well with the public – he struggled to find his words at times and seemed indecisive.
Obama also missed a crucial opportunity to take Romney to task over his 47% comment. There were a number of moments where it would have been appropriate and on-topic to bring it up and the President chose to go in another direction. As the key event in the last month that has caused Romney the most harm in the polls, I would have thought it was at least worth mention.
Romney managed to avoid being seen as extreme, distancing himself from the far right of his party. However, his commitment to his healthcare plan from his time as Governor may come back to haunt him down the line.
As Obama began to falter through the midsection of the debate, Romney found his feet after a slightly stilted beginning. His two final statements were the most impressive of the evening.
Romney’s closing attack on Obama’s economic leadership throughout the last four years was pointed and clear, a rarity and exactly what was needed. His bipartisan play at the end of the debate was also crucial and well articulated. Obama has struggled on this issue and throughout the debate he had no answer for Romney’s attacks.
Tonight’s debate was a Romney victory, but narrowly. His performance might well tighten the polls a bit more than we have already seen. He certainly appeared more presidential than ever before. But this was by no means a knockout and Obama still has two more debates to defend his record and articulate his vision decisively and clearly.