President Obama did badly in his first debate—by his standards, by those of his supporters, and in comparison to Mitt Romney. As Ann Romney said recently, this is hard; it’s easy to criticize from home. (Jim Lehrer, the moderator, who all but announced at the end that he’d lost control, might borrow that line.) But the loss is especially striking when one considers the openings Romney gave him, both before and during the debate. We’ll have more policy analysis soon; first, here are seven chances Obama let slip by.
1. Who speaks for Big Bird? Romney’s first big-government target was Obamacare; his second is covered in yellow feathers: “I’m sorry, Jim. I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you too. But I’m not going to—I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.” Everyone but Obama began talking about Big Bird getting fired. But to win this one, the President didn’t have to set up barricades on Sesame Street or point out, as Neil deGrasse Tyson did on Twitter, that PBS support is 0.012 per cent of the federal budget. Just riffing about Big Bird and his ilk would have done it, and been to the point—it is a show about neighbors, and how people live together. He might, for example, have said that the Count could tell that Romney’s numbers didn’t add up. Instead, he sounded like Bert: diffident, and only narrowly correct.
2. Romney’s accountant’s neighborhood. Romney: “You said you get a deduction for getting a plant overseas. Look, I’ve been in business for twenty-five years. I have no idea what you’re talking about. I maybe need to get a new accountant.” Here are a few things he might have said, and didn’t: a) “Sounds like you have a lot of experience moving jobs overseas.” b) “Governor, you’re the one who is wrong. You might even find that deduction in the hundred of pages of your own returns” c) “I don’t know, Governor, based on what we know about the rate of taxes you pay, you might want to keep that accountant.” (Nick Paumgarten came up with that one in The New Yorker’s live chat.) Speaking of which:
3. Where was Warren Buffet’s secretary? Where were Romney’s tax returns, or his tax rates? Tax fairness came up, but they didn’t (nor did Bain), and Obama did not really control that line of argument. Nor did he draw a connection between Romney’s secret budget plan and his unseen tax returns. As it was, Obama was strongest on the bad math. But Romney got away with a tautological rebuttal—“So there’s no economist can say Mitt Romney’s tax plan adds five trillion if I say I will not add to the deficit with my tax plan”—that, when you parse it, just doesn’t make sense.
4. Who forgot the forty-seven per cent? Was there a conscious decision not to mention the fund-raising video in which Romney said forty-seven per cent of American saw themselves as victims, adding “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives”? There were multiple opportunities, including at the end, when Lehrer, for all his flaws as a moderator, asked a clear but broad question about the role of government. Was the campaign so afraid of putting Obama on the side of half the country?
5. Social Security: Chasing the Clouds Away. Lehrer: “Mr. President, do you see a major difference between the two of you on Social Security?” Obama: “You know, I suspect that, on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound. It’s going to have to be tweaked the way it was by Ronald Reagan and Speaker—Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill. But it is—the basic structure is sound. But—but I want to talk about the values behind Social Security and Medicare and then talk about Medicare, because that’s the big driver of our deficits right now.”
I quote that in full to get at how strangely tentative Obama’s approach to this encounter seemed (the strong values declaration didn’t really come, though there was an anecdote about his grandmother). Does Obama really believe that, whatever he trusts Romney’s good sense to tell him, Social Security would be as safe with a Republican President and Congress as otherwise? What about Paul Ryan’s dalliance with Social Security privatization? The commitment to protecting Social Security has long been an advantage for Democrats, because it is so crucial to so many Americans. Obama shrugged. Similarly,
6. Who cares about Medicare? “So if you’re sixty or around sixty or older, you don’t need to listen any further,” Romney said, after claiming that those people wouldn’t see their benefits change. Why is a politician telling people of any age not to listen to a discussion about a program that is a major part of the federal budget, and may be of use to their children and grandchildren or neighbors or people they’ve never met? Obama, though, didn’t do much to challenge that logic. “For—for—so if you’re—if you —you’re fifty-four or fifty-five, you might want to listen, because this—this will affect you.”
7. The case of the missing seven-hundred and sixteen billion. “I can’t understand how you can cut Medicare seven-hundred and sixteen billion dollars for current recipients of Medicare,” Romney said. I can’t understand why Obama didn’t call him on this statement, which is simply false. (The number applies to brakes on future growth; the savings would go to bolster health-care for seniors.) Romney, by my count, used the seven-hundred and sixteen billion figure no fewer than ten times. Debunking it provided Bill Clinton with his biggest applause line, referring to the “brass” it took for Paul Ryan to attack Obama for savings he had also proposed. Obama didn’t hit back, and when he didn’t, Romney kept going, and rolling. There were a number of points in the debate where Obama seemed to have hurt himself by emulating Clinton, who can make numbers sound pretty. This was a place where it would have helped.
There’s a good deal more—where was anything about reproductive rights? Both candidates did bring up Ronald Reagan. In the next few days, Reagan may be on Obama’s mind. Reagan lost his first debate against Walter Mondale. He got it together, and won the debate and the election. But it took work.