First US Presidential Debate Review: A Worrying Night for Obama

Daniel Crump 

Image © yeimaya

Last night saw the first of a series of US Presidential debates between Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. Deciding who the winner is in any political debate is not exactly straightforward, but speaking objectively, Romney certainly put in the most convincing performance by generally coming across as more enthusiastic and prepared. What was clear about this debate, particularly for the neutrals and swinging voters among us, was that Americans are genuinely being presented with a clear choice in November. That popular observation that US politics is becoming so centralised that one cannot tell the difference between Democrat and Republican anymore, just isn’t ringing true this time around.

This was clear from the very start. Round one of the debates focused on Domestic issues, with questions on jobs, the deficit, healthcare and the role of government on the table. Unsurprisingly, the two men differed in their opinions about what is causing America’s slow recovery from one of the deepest recessions this side of the Second World War. Obama was keen to point out that the problems were started by the Bush administration, although he was careful not to use his predecessor’s name directly. There was one occasion where the Governor did acknowledge the role that Bush had played in building the US deficit, but decided to focus more on the fact that Obama has had four years in which to bring it down, and has failed.

The candidates genuinely disagree about the methods with which to eliminate the federal debt, and this is where we got our first good old fashioned Left/Right mini-debate. Obama prefers a mixture of tax increases and spending cuts, asking the top earners in America to pay a little more in order to protect the programs that ordinary Americans depend upon. Governor Romney would bring down the deficit predominantly through spending cuts. In a debate that focused so heavily on sticking up for the middle class, one would assume that Obama’s plan would have come across as the most sensible. In fact, Romney did an excellent job of explaining why raising taxes on the top 3% of business in America actually punishes the firms that hire the majority of Americans, thus threatening jobs at a time of weak economic recovery. Obama clearly wanted to use this section of the debate to portray Romney as a President for the very wealthy, and the incumbent seemed a tad shaken when his plan didn’t appear to follow through. It was always going to be crucial for Romney to come across as the more ‘pro-business’ candidate in this debate, and on the point of tax revenue, he seemed to do this with ease. 

As for entitlements, Obama was quick to point out the values of America’s programs such as Medicare and Medicaid and was almost reluctant to refer to them as ‘entitlements’. His point was that people who use these services are often seen as dependent by those who have less use for them, and he wanted to stress that entitlement programs allow these individuals to actually live more independently by leading a more normal life. Romney, although by no means refuting this point, was not apologetic about his plan to place all entitlement programs under examination and to ‘do away’ with those that weren’t cost effective. For Americans who depend on these benefits, the lack of detail given by the Governor on this point ought to be viewed as worrying. In an attempt to appeal to the middle ground, Obama nicely argued that the private sector is built on the premise of profit making. Exposing entitlement programs to the will of the private sector simply cannot guarantee the security and peace of mind of vulnerable Americans, even if it might help to save the country money.

This brought us on nicely to the issue of health care. By now, all ought to be aware of Romney’s plan to repeal ‘Obamacare’ on his very first day in office. This was always going to be a sensitive part of the debate, and thankfully for Democrats, Obama put in a far better performance in this section than he had previously done. This may be thanks, at least in part, to Romney’s unenviable position of having to discredit a plan that he himself introduced when Governor of Massachusetts.  His retort to this point was to argue that what works at the state level doesn’t necessarily work at the federal level. He also argued that ‘Romneycare’ was brought in after cross party deliberation and consensus whereas Obamacare was passed without a single Republican vote in the Senate. One may see the point of following this line of argument, but in terms of discrediting Obamacare as a policy, it did little. No doubt the ‘Tea Party’ wing of the GOP was not enjoying what it was seeing at this point in the evening. One argument that has been directed at the President and his health care plan previously, and which resurfaced again last night, was that focusing on health reform at a time when Americans needed a stronger economy and more jobs was irresponsible on the part of the administration. Obama did himself many favours by arguing that Obamacare allows ordinary middle class families to feel secure that they won’t lose their job if they get sick and have to pay the arbitrary limits set by their insurance companies. Again, Obama’s tactic was to portray the private sector as heartless, and the Federal Government as the only way to protect vulnerable Americans.

This point was a component part of the wider debate going on about the role of government, which formed the last question presented to the two candidates. Obama argued that the Federal Government has a major role to play in creating opportunities for young, hard working Americans by improving education standards and making jobs available. The government can offer students low interest loans, hire more teachers and protect education budgets. Left entirely to the state level, which seems to be Governor Romney’s plan, is dangerous for young Americans as budgets are not guaranteed, and teachers are often laid off. In retort, Romney argued that the role of Government is to protect the constitution, make sure the country’s military is strong and to generally stay out of the way when it comes to business. Obama’s insistence on creating incentives for ‘Green’ jobs is an example of how the Fed believes it has the right to pick winners and losers, something that has to be left to the state. In other words, the private sector is able to run programs more efficiently and make better decisions about what is best for the US economy.

It was by no means a poor performance by the President, but he did come up against a worthy opponent in Mitt Romney. At best, both men went a long way to cementing their position on their respective sides of the political divide. For his part, Obama scored highly when defending the policies that he has been most heavily attacked for by the GOP such as Health care and advocating the role of government in the economy. What may prove most damaging for Obama in the long term was that the challenger ultimately presented a better case for why the private sector will get people back into work, which come November, will be on the minds of most voters who are still currently undecided.

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