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Candidates debate domestic policy

Nicole Michels | Friday, October 5, 2012

President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney debated domestic policy Wednesday evening in the first of three presidential debates during an evening that seemed to focus more on style than substance at the University of Denver.

In a reversal of the usual pattern, Romney’s poised, polished performance seemed to outshine Obama’s lackluster appearance, political science professor Michael Zuckert said.

“Romney knew exactly how he wanted to put things and he put them pithily, he put them smartly and sharply ⎯ he was very smooth,” Zuckert said. “Obama was still looking for words and ways to formulate things … He should have had better formulations right at hand that he could have relied on and spoken more forcefully, instead of groping around for ways to express things that he could have had on the tip of his tongue.”

This impressive showing from Romney won him the debate, at least stylistically, Zuckert said.

“In terms of overall impression, Romney carried a lot of the debate, but in terms of issues, I think Obama carried it,” Zuckert said. “I saw the polls afterward and they said that they thought Romney could handle the economy better, that Romney could handle jobs better.”

The thermometer measuring audience reaction on the bottom of the CNN broadcast of the debate seemed to indicate that the audience was reacting more to style than substance, Zuckert said.

“It isn’t clear to me how much of the content of what they actually said made an impression, but I do think that style counts a lot,” Zuckert said. “That’s an example of why rhetoric is important – people react more to the impressions things leave on them rather than the substance of what is there … and the impression in this performance was that Romney is ‘presidential.'”

Film, Television and Theatre professor Susan Ohmer said Romney’s structured answers helped him retain attention.

“It was striking to me that he numbered his points,” Ohmer said. “That’s a strategy that you see in formal debate that helps keep listeners organized – a very smart strategy on [former] Governor Romney’s part.”

Moderator Jim Lehrer, executive editor and former news anchor of PBS news hour, told the candidates that the debate would be divided into six units of 15 minutes, each structured around different focal points.

The first question asked the candidates to speak to their plans to create jobs, which focused the debate on differences between two disparate plans to stimulate the economy.

Economics professor Eric Sims said this beginning gave Romney a lot of momentum starting the debate.

“I think people vote with their pocketbooks,” Sims said. “People want to ask the question ‘Are you better off now than you were four years ago?’ and I don’t think many people can say yes to that question – the president is taking a hit for that.”

Rarely has an incumbent candidate been reelected to the presidency after presiding over a downturn in the economy, Sims said.

“Historically speaking it is surprising that a president would be running this well with the economy in this shape,” Sims said. “To be fair it is hard to tell how responsible President Obama is or is not for that… he did walk into a bad situation but it is very unusual that we are in a recession and he is polling so well.”

Both candidates have very different visions on how to solve the jobs problem, but Romney’s points were more salient because he was able to put Obama on the defensive, Sims said.

The president failed to refocus the discussion of the economic progress and job creation during his term as an analysis on improvement, rather than focusing on its current status, Zuckert said.

“Bill Clinton gave Obama a script that he could have used more effectively on that issue, and though Obama did try, he didn’t push it as forcefully as he might have done as a ‘Look where we started from and look where we are type of thing’ as opposed to ‘Look where we are at the absolute moment,'” Zuckert said. “Obama didn’t emphasize the trends, some of the trends are not great but they’re better than Romney portrayed them.”

Zuckert said the focus on the economy played right into Romney’s hands.

“Criticism of Obama on unemployment is still Romney’s best technique, but I’ve been waiting to hear more details about how he would actually change [unemployment],” Zuckert said. “I just haven’t heard a policy to me that sounds persuasive enough yet, to me it’s just not enough detail.”

Romney was able to contrast his experience with business and economic policy with the relative lack of progress made in those areas in the past four years, Sims said.

“That’s Obama’s weakest point. Barack Obama has a lot of pluses: he’s very likeable, at least four years ago he brought this attitude of hope and change to Washington, but the reality is that the economy stinks,” Sims said. “I think this was playing to Romney’s wheelhouse, domestic and economic policy: That’s where he has experience… In their discussion Romney came across as having a very good grasp of economics, in contrast I thought the President looked a little timid at times.”

One of the strongest points Romney made was a criticism of the timing of Obama’s health care law, Sims said.

“Romney’s point was that he was surprised that Obama was going to move this healthcare reform through [Congress] so fast right in the middle of an economic downturn, and that though we do need that kind of legislation – some kind of healthcare reform in the long term – when the real issue should have been jobs, President Obama was pushing through healthcare reform that created a lot of uncertainty,” Sims said. “Uncertainty is not conducive to a healthy labor market on both ends.”

Ohmer said the differences in policy between Romney and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan were highlighted during the debate and by the work of fact checkers after the debate.

“Ryan has endorsed legislation that will [end] Pell Grants, while Romney has said he wouldn’t do that,” Ohmer said. “Romney has also said that he won’t cut five trillion dollars when fact checkers said he would.”

The degree to which each candidate moved toward the middle was striking, Zuckert said.

“Even though people have said the issues were really strongly defined, they moved back towards each other,” Zuckert said. “Romney did maybe more than Obama, but both did substantially: Obama did in his litany about small businesses and job creation, and Romney in how he tailored his position from what we have heard before.”

The fundamental difference between the candidates is the role that each envisions for the government within the economy, Sims said.

“They characterize each other as free market capitalism and socialism, but on the broad level it is really that one side wants less government intervention and more power and choice in the hands of the individual, while the other side wants more government involvement – I think at the end of the day that’s the main difference here,” Sims said.

The debate has changed America’s perception of the choice to make in November, Sims said.

“Last night Romney came across as in control of the debate, and looked presidential: He helped himself a lot,” Sims said. “I think the Obama camp will have a different strategy next time around … as they move away from domestic policy to foreign policy it will be interesting to watch – we have a much closer race today than we did 24 hours ago.”