Romney makes first debate a referendum on Obama; Obama wilts
posted at 11:18 am on October 4, 2012 by Howard Portnoy
On Tuesday the Daily Caller released a 2007 video with the promise that it would show Barack Obama as “you’ve never seen him.” It remains to be seen whether that video, which shows Obama accusing the U.S. government of racism, will cut any ice with voters.
His performance last night in the first presidential debate is almost certainly another story. This was really Obama as “you’ve never seen him.” The silver-tongued orator of 2008 gave way to a stammering presence, a man so unsure of himself that even mega-donor Bill Maher was compelled to tweet that the president really is at sea without his teleprompter. Challenger Mitt Romney, in contrast, was confident, in command of the facts, and—most importantly—on the offensive.
Romney’s main objective coming into the debate was to make it a referendum on Obama’s presidency rather than a choice between competing visions for America’s future, as the president has been trying to frame it. And to a large degree he succeeded. Obama for his part was caught off guard, having for the first time to defend his indefensible record in a face-to-face confrontation.
Throughout much of the one-sided, 90-minute slug fest he appeared outmatched, alternately gazing down like a crestfallen child or looking over at the one man on stage who came off as presidential.
One by one, the false choices Obama has been peddling on the campaign trail were exposed. When he attempted to contrast the GOP plan for governance with the Democratic plan by noting that 23 million new jobs were created under Bill Clinton, Romney reminded him that he and Bill Clinton are not joined at the hip. He turned the spotlight on Obama’s execution of the “Clinton plan” over the past four years, noting that 23 million people are unemployed or have stopped looking for work, that the food stamp rolls have swelled by 15 million families, that family income has shrunk, and that economic growth has been slowing and is currently a trickle.
When Obama grumbled about oil industry subsidies, claiming that the oil cartels like ExxonMobil “get $4 billion a year in corporate welfare,” Romney set the record straight. He cited energy department statistics noting that the tax break for oil companies is $2.8 billion a year, that it’s “an accounting treatment,” and that the funds go not to Big Oil but “to small companies, to drilling operators and so forth.” Then he went for the jugular, refreshing Obama’s memory that “in one year, you provided $90 billion in breaks to the green energy world,” adding “that’s about 50 years’ worth of what oil and gas receives.”
When Obama identified one of his proposals for decreasing the deficit as an elimination of a corporate “deduction for moving a plant overseas,” Romney replied, “I’ve been in business for 25 years. I have no idea what you’re talking about. I maybe need to get a new accountant.” Then he turned serious, adding “the idea that you get a break for shipping jobs overseas is simply not the case.” The president, in over his head, wisely remained silent.
And so it went for a punishing hour and a half that must have seemed more like a year and a half to the president. And in the end liberal pundits who days ago were wondering why Romney doesn’t just concede the race were back to gnashing their teeth. “Where was Obama tonight?” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews whined after the debate. “Why didn’t the president probe [Romney] aggressively on all the recent points of information?” whatever those might be.
Others were more measured, more adult in their responses but still uneasy and looking, like The New York Times’s Gail Collins, for a takeaway that they could feel good about. For Collins it was “a funny look on [Romney’s] face whenever President Obama was talking. Somewhere between a person who is trying to overlook an unpleasant smell and a guy who is trying to restrain himself from pointing out that his car is much nicer than your car.”
But the focus groups were not so down on Romney or as convinced as they once might have been that he is the rich outsider while Obama is their undisputed savior. One post-debate group conducted by pollster Frank Luntz showed a sharp and enthusiastic movement by former Obama supporters into the Romney camp.
However you break down the debate, the tone and tenor of the election have changed. Fixing blame for the nation’s enduring economic woes on George W. Bush may finally begin its migration to the back burner, where it should have been relegated long ago. And expect Joe Biden’s pithy reminder that “the middle class has been buried for the past four years” to move to the front.
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