Maybe President Obama forgot his debate with Mitt Romney was on TV. How else to explain his lack of dynamism before a worldwide television audience in the millions. Were it an actual debate, where participants are scored on the substance of what they say, the president might have fared better in postdebate polls. But the public reaction after Wednesday night’s tilt indicated viewers were more turned on by Romney’s energy than Obama’s ennui.
Again and again, Obama matter-of-factly pointed out gaping gaps in Romney’s program for America. Again and again, Romney, with a smile on his face and certainty in his voice, refused to fill in the gaps. It was a winning performance by a candidate whose recent gaffes may have made it easy to exceed expectations.
Obama helped by not reminding viewers of Romney’s belittling remarks about the 47 percent of Americans too poor to pay federal income taxes, or bringing up Romney’s stint as head of a venture capital firm that closed workplaces and later sent jobs overseas. Were the omissions a mistake, or strategy? Romney likely had prepared a retort in anticipation of such attacks.
Romney got off to a strong start Wednesday night by breaking down his economic plan into five parts: “One, get us energy-independent … Number two, open up more trade … Number three, make sure our people have the skills they need to succeed … Number four, get to us a balanced budget … Number five, champion small business.” He was clear and concise. He even gave viewers a catchy phrase to remember — “trickle-down government” — to describe Obama’s policies.
What Romney didn’t do, despite the president’s pressing for an answer, is explain how he’s going to cut taxes — by $5 trillion, Obama said — extend the Bush tax cuts, another trillion, and increase military spending by $2 trillion without blowing the deficit even farther out of the water. Romney wouldn’t say. He insisted his economic plan does not call for a tax cut that high, but various fact checkers later concluded it did.
In the past, Romney has said he will attack the deficit by closing tax loopholes and getting rid of expensive deductions, but he still hasn’t said which ones. Until he does, he leaves the door open, as he did Wednesday night, for Obama to suggest Romney will target those tax deductions most important to middle-class families — for mortgage interest and state and local taxes, for example.
A seemingly listless Obama never effectively drilled home that point, however. He mentioned it. He corrected Romney when he described a reduction in the growth of Medicare spending as a $716 billion “cut” to that program. He explained that the voucher program that Romney proposes for adults not yet eligible for Medicare would ultimately gut the program by reducing the number of participants. He even called Romney out for wanting to repeal the Dodd-Frank law enacted to end the Wall Street abuses that pushed the nation into recession.
But polling after the debate suggested most viewers didn’t pay attention to much of what Obama said, which means he has a lot to work on before the next set.