The first presidential debate hurdle

All eyes were on the Denver University arena last Wednesday for the first presidential debate between President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Pre-debate polling had consistently been showing Obama with a slight advantage. The day of the debate, Rasmussen polling showed Obama two percentage points ahead of Romney with 49 percent compared to 47 percent of likely voter support. How much of a difference the first debate will ultimately have on the election is up for deliberation, however, the Rasmussen poll shows that Romney and Obama’s positions have now flipped with Romney leading 49 percent to 47 percent. Sunday’s poll is the first to reflect likely voters who had a chance to watch the debate.

Political pundits on both sides of the aisle agree that the debate was a success for Romney, and Sunday’s poll seems to confirm this. The Romney win came as a surprise to many Democrats and even Republicans who expected a big showing from Obama, whose presence was strong in the 2004 debates with then-presidential candidate John McCain. While Romney channeled excitement and enthusiasm, Obama seemed aloof and detached during most of the banter.

Much of this first debate had the candidates touting their bipartisan nature. However, Romney seemed to have more credibility in that arena. He repeatedly pointed to his experience as a governor of Massachusetts where he worked with an 87 percent Democratic state legislature to make changes for the people of his state. President Obama tried to show bipartisanship, claiming that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) was molded after Romney’s healthcare plan for Massachusetts. Yet, his argument was overshadowed by Romney’s explanation that Massachusetts’ reform was strictly at the state level where experimentation can and should be tried. Furthermore, it was difficult to claim bipartisanship for passing a piece of legislation that, as Romney highlighted, did not have one signature of Republican approval. Later, Obama advised that a president should be able to stand up to his own party and the opposing party. Yet, while he gave two concrete examples of when as president he stood his ground with respect to the Republicans, there was no example given showing his defiance to Democrats, or even bridging the political gap to find common ground. In a climate where voters are anxious for government to cooperate, the president’s inability to do so called into question his sincerity. However, neither candidate had any disastrous gaffes. At the same time, neither delivered any remarkable moments. There were no lines on par with Mondale’s “Where’s the beef?” or Reagan’s “There you go again.”

The debates are opportunities for both candidates to bring their ideas directly to the people. Each was given ample time to express their hopes for the future and qualify them with their past record. With two more presidential debates left, it is important that both candidates improve in their performances to garner support from the very powerful group of undecided voters. President Obama should work on appearing more assertive and engaged. His body language during the first debate seemed timid at times, as he continually looked down and often avoided speaking directly to Romney. While the current economic situation isn’t ideal, Obama should more confidently point to what he sees as his accomplishments and how he believes his past actions are working to improve the American economy. It seemed he was putting more stress on the future, when in fact most voters want to hear his case for what he has done in the past four years before he jumps to a possible second term. As the challenger, Romney has to accomplish the opposite task. While he should point to his past experience in the private sector as well as in the state governorship, Romney needs to lay out clear plans for the future with precision. Thus, in order to satisfy undecided voters in the upcoming debates, Obama must provide detail as to how his presidency has been successful and Romney must provide a similar depth of detail as to what he will accomplish and how he will accomplish it if elected president.

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