The Great Debate of 2012 turned into more of an academic seminar between public-policy professors than the kind of savage prizefight that zealots on both sides had been hoping for.
There were some sharp exchanges, such as when Republican challenger Mitt Romney accused President Obama of advocating "trickle-down government" that was stifling the American entrepreneurial spirit. For his part, Obama accused Romney of failing to reveal the specifics of many of his proposals, such as those on the economy, because they would alienate too many average Americans.
Still, the debate was a pivotal event in the campaign because, for the first time, the American public got to see Obama and Romney face to face, matching policy for policy, criticism for criticism, vision for vision, and assess how they behaved under pressure.
With the election a month away, the candidates described the themes of their campaigns and the personal characteristics they wished to be known for. There was little new in their 90-minute encounter.
Obama, in his concluding statement, pledged to continue to "fight every single day" for the American people. Romney said the economy will continue to falter if Obama is re-elected and the challenger pledged to bring commonsense and practical but conservative solutions to the country's problems.
Romney appeared to gain an edge because he seemed the equal of Obama in debating skill, increasing his stature, and didn't exhibit the harsh, out-of-touch attitudes that Obama's campaign has been trying to portray him as having.
For all the advance talk by Romney aides that he would arrive armed with powerful barbs and put-downs designed to force Obama to play defense, Romney was aggressive but polite and offered no lines that will remain etched in political history. Neither did Obama.
Romney, a muliti-millionaire former investor and ex-governor of Massachusetts, portrayed Obama as a decent and likable man but a president whose policies had failed. He said Obama not been able to keep his fundamental promises to improve the economy and create jobs. He used a variant of the famous theme used by Ronald Reagan against President Jimmy Carter in 1980—summarized by Reagan's question, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"—and said Obama has botched his job. Romney cited high unemployment, weak economic growth, stifing government over-regulation, a troubled housing industry, burgeoning deficits, and a $16 trillion national debt.
[PHOTOS: See Obama and Romney on the campaign trail.]
"Middle income families are being crushed," Romney said, repeating a phrase used by Vice President Biden earlier this week, to the consternation of many fellow Democrats. "I will not under any circumstances raise taxes on middle-income families," he added.
For his part, Obama defended his first-term policies and said he would continue them, such as his emphasis on investments in education and infrastructure. He said the country under his leadership worked its way out of what was an imminent economic collapse, which he called the worst economic calamity since the Depression. He attributed part of the recovery to his economic stimulus and carefully crafted bailouts of the auto industry and other sectors. He said he will continue to fight for middle-class tax cuts, preserve Medicare, and improve education. "We do best when the middle class is doing well," Obama said.
It's likely that Romney will gain a bit of momentum from the debate and perhaps close the gap in the polls that have made him an underdog to Obama nationally and in key battleground states such as Ohio and Colorado. There will be two more presidential debates, in New York and Florida, later this month, and one vice presidential debate.
But the aftermath of Wednesday night's encounter will be more of an emphasis on personal campaigning by each candidate coupled with an enormous wave of TV ads in the battleground states. The ads are likely to be overwhelmingly negative, which means the debate will amount to a temporary example of civility and gentlemanly conduct in a campaign mostly marked by attacks and counter-attacks.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken "Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and Twitter.
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