Mitt Romney on Wednesday accused President Obama of failing to lead the country out of the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, using the first presidential debate to invigorate his candidacy by presenting himself as an equal who can solve problems Mr. Obama has been unable to.
The president implored Americans to be patient and argued that his policies needed more time to work, warning that changing course would wipe away the economic progress the country is steadily making. The two quarreled aggressively over tax policy, the budget deficit and the role of government, with each man accusing the other of being evasive and misleading voters.
But for all of the anticipation, and with less than five weeks remaining until Election Day, the 90-minute debate unfolded much like a seminar by a business consultant and a college professor. Both men argued that their policies would improve the lives of the middle class, but their discussion often dipped deep into the weeds, and they talked over each other without connecting their ideas to voters.
If Mr. Romney’s goal was to show that he could project equal stature to the president, he succeeded, perhaps offering his campaign the lift that Republicans have been seeking. Mr. Obama often stopped short of challenging his rival’s specific policies and chose not to invoke some of the same arguments that his campaign has been making against Mr. Romney for months.
At one point, Mr. Romney offered an admonishment, saying, “Mr. President, you’re entitled, as the president, to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts, all right?” He forcefully engaged Mr. Obama throughout the night, while the president often looked down at his lectern and took notes.
A boisterous campaign, which has played out through dueling rallies and an endless stream of television commercials, took a sober turn as the candidates stood at facing lecterns for the first time. Mr. Obama, who has appeared to take command of the race in most battleground states, seemed to adopt an air of caution throughout the evening that left some of his liberal supporters disappointed in his performance.
“Are we going to double down on the top-down economic policies that helped to get us into this mess,” he said, “or do we embrace a new economic patriotism that says, ‘America does best when the middle class does best’ “?
For much of the debate, the candidates commandeered the stage, taking control away from the moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS, as they kept trying to rebut one other. At times, the moderator seemed as if he had walked off the stage, a result of new rules that were intended to allow for a deeper and more freewheeling discussion.
On a basic level it was a clash of two ideologies, the president’s Democratic vision of government playing a supporting role in spurring economic growth, and Mr. Romney’s Republican vision that government should get out of the way of businesses that know best how to create jobs.
Mr. Romney sought to use his moment before a prime-time audience of tens of millions to escape the corner Mr. Obama and his allies have painted him into, depicting him as an uncompromising adherent to policies that have been tried before. He instead turned the focus on his opponent’s record.
“You’ve been president four years. You’ve been president four years,” Mr. Romney said at one point. He ticked through a list of promises he said Mr. Obama had not lived up to, and said, “Middle-income families are being crushed.”
Neither candidate delivered that knockout blow or devastating line that each side was hoping for. Still, style points went to Mr. Romney, who continually and methodically pressed his critique of Mr. Obama. The president at times acted more as if he were addressing reporters in the Rose Garden than beating back a challenger intent on taking his job.
Throughout the evening, Mr. Romney escaped Mr. Obama’s attempts to pin him down on which deductions he would eliminate in his tax proposals.
“At some point,” Mr. Obama said, “the American people have to ask themselves: Is the reason Governor Romney is keeping all these plans secret, is it because they’re going to be too good? Because middle-class families benefit too much? No.”
Mr. Obama criticized Mr. Romney for his answer to a primary debate question last year in which he joined his fellow Republicans in saying he would not accept a budget deal allowing $1 of tax increases for every $10 in spending cuts. “Now, if you take such an unbalanced approach,” Mr. Obama said, “then that means you are going to be gutting our investments in schools and education.”
Mr. Romney said his position on the tax-for-revenue deal was because of the state of the economy, not necessarily ideology. “I’m not going to raise taxes on anyone because when the economy’s growing slow like this, when we’re in recession, you shouldn’t raise taxes on anyone,” he said.
He said his proposals were unlike those of other Republicans because he was combining tax reform with lowered tax rates. “My plan is not like anything that’s been tried before,” he said. He said he would not support any tax cuts that added to the deficit, in other words, that were not paid for.
The debate, held at Magness Arena on the campus of the University of Denver, was the first of three face-to-face encounters between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney. It took place even as voters across the country were already casting early ballots.
All year Democrats have been waiting for Mr. Romney to make a more overt appeal to the sort of moderate voters he needs to win over by highlighting the more centrist positions from his years as Massachusetts governor. And on Wednesday he seemed to highlight his record in ways he had yet to do.
Even as he repeated his plans to repeal the president’s health care plan, he happily embraced the plan he pushed into law in Massachusetts — the basis for the president’s — that is anathema to many in his party.
“I like the way we did it in Massachusetts,” Mr. Romney said of his health plan. “We had Republicans and Democrats come together and work together.”
But an argument for bipartisanship animated much of Mr. Romney’s message through the night. He said he had worked with Democratic legislators in Massachusetts. And he said that he would do the same thing on his first day in the Oval Office.
The claim drew one of Mr. Obama’s sharpest retorts of the night. “I think Governor Romney’s going to have a busy first day,” he said, “because he’s also going to repeal ‘Obamacare,’ which will not be very popular among Democrats as you’re sitting down with them.”
Mr. Romney pressed Mr. Obama on a provision of his health care overhaul that cut $716 billion from the growth in Medicare, saying that by cutting fees paid to providers it was certain to affect treatment. And he emphasized that his plans for Medicare would not affect current beneficiaries or people close to entering the system.
But Mr. Obama interjected, saying that if “you’re 54 or 55, you might want to listen because this will affect you.” He said that Mr. Romney’s plans to offer subsidies for private insurance would mean “the traditional Medicare system will collapse.”
The discussion between the candidates often unfolded in a staccato of statistics, making it difficult to follow. The candidates quarreled over subsidies for the oil industry, Medicare cuts, taxes and government spending.
In the opening half of the debate, Mr. Obama sought to link Mr. Romney to former President George W. Bush. For his part, Mr. Obama sought to link himself to the economic policies of former President Bill Clinton.
Mr. Romney pushed back against Democrats arguments that he is proposing a form of “trickle-down” economics that would benefit the rich and hurt he middle class. He accused Mr. Obama of proposing “trickle-down government.”
“We know the path that we’re taking isn’t working, and it’s time for a new path,” Mr. Romney said.
Both campaigns acknowledged that the race is close enough that the first debate could reorder a contest that has recently appeared to be tilting in Mr. Obama’s favor, in spite of continued economic hardship throughout the nation and a slower recovery than he promised four years ago. The candidates meet for their second debate on Oct. 16 in New York.
While acrimony has deepened between the rivals, the men smiled broadly as they strode briskly onto the stage Wednesday night and exchanged a hand shake that lingered for several seconds. The president opened his remarks by wishing his wife a happy 20th anniversary and offered her a promise: “A year from now, we will not be celebrating it in front of 40 million people.”
Mr. Romney congratulated Mr. Obama and drew laughter from the crowd when he joked: “I’m sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine — here with me.”
Source: The New York Times