Presidential Debate: Obama Had No Chutzpah, and Why Didn't He Confront Romney's Blatant Dishonesty More?

Election '16

The pundits' quick reaction to the first presidential debate was virtually unanimous: Romney had the energy, was well prepared and pushed his arguments forcefully, while Obama held back, throwing weak jabs and abandoning the populist message he features on the campaign trail.

While Romney cited reports and studies, he also talked about the issues in sweeping, moralistic terms. Obama, on the other hand, spent much of the evening playing college prof – reciting facts and figures. Romney was the agressor throughout the debate, and moderator Jim Lehrer did a poor job controlling the discussion.

For weeks, we've been hearing that debates only rarely yield a game-changing moment – which is true – and Wednesday night's meeting was no exception. But the media has a powerful incentive to cover a tight horserace, so we can expect what has been the widely accepted conventional wisdom to be turned on its head in the coming days.

As for ordinary people, a CBS poll of “undecided voters” found that 46 percent thought Romney won, 22 percent believed Obama was the victor and 32 percent thought it was a tie. Romney succeeded in one of his great challenges; according to the CBS poll, 30 percent of undecided voters thought that Romney “cared about their concerns” coming into the debate; 63 percent believed that after watching the debate. In CNN's poll, 53 percent of viewers thought Romney played more offense, while 30 percent said the same of Obama.

But while a weak performance by Obama will certainly have liberal hands wringing and conservatives triumphant, Mitt Romney failed to score a decisive blow. He got in a few zingers – at one point, he said to Obama, “you have the right to your own airplane and your own house, but not your own facts" – but the clock is running down and Romney still has a lot of ground to make up in crucial swing-states like Ohio. Obama's performance was flat, but there were no major stumbles that might become news stories unto themselves, no Gerald Ford-style “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” sound-bytes. The most reportable line of the night was probably when Romney, vowing to cut funding for PBS, insisted that he liked Big Bird. According to a snap poll by CNN, the candidates' favorability ratings were unchanged overall by the debate.

Romney was also notably dishonest. He repeatedly insisted that his tax plan added up – it doesn't – despite Obama calling him on it. During the discussion of healthcare, Romney deployed Politifacts' “Lies of the Year” for both 2009 (“death panels”) and 2010 (Obamacare is a “government takeover”). It was an effective strategy in the short term, but leaves him open to several days of “fact-checking” by the media. If his mendacity becomes a story – as it did after Paul Ryan's convention speech – then these first impressions may not stand up.

CNN also had a focus group giving real-time reactions to what the candidates were saying. There was a notable gender gap, with women giving Obama better marks and men expressing a preference for Romney. Romney did well throughout; Obama's approval rose markedly when he spoke about healthcare and education, “kitchen table issues.”

Ultimately, the much-anticipated debate, like a big heavy-weight match where the boxers spend a lot of time dancing and weaving, was somewhat anticlimactic. Romney needed a big blow to change the dynamics of the race. Instead, he'll likely see a slight movement in his direction in the national polls. Meanwhile, there are three more debates to go.

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