Barack Obama got shellacked in the first U.S. presidential debate

But he came out swinging this week in the second showdown with Mitt Romney

by Luiza Ch. Savage

Eric Gay/AP

Martha Powers, a 56-year-old independent voter in the battleground state of Virginia—where polls show Barack Obama and Mitt Romney tied, each with just under half the vote—waited to hear the President speak at a campaign event in Fairfax County with a heavy heart. She’d voted for Obama in 2008, but was having trouble deciding whether to do it again. “He inherited a lot of awful stuff from Bush,” Powers said. “But I wish I could be a little more enthusiastic about him.”

It was a day after Obama’s disastrous debate in Denver gave Mitt Romney his first slim lead in some national polls since becoming the Republican nominee.

Democrats in the crowd were dispirited but philosophical, hoping their guy had just had a bad night. But undecided voters like Powers were straining to find words to express their reticence, grasping, it seemed, for what Obama had so far failed to provide them: something to vote for.

Four years ago, Powers said, she was “thrilled” to play a part in the historic election of America’s first black president. “It’s about time this country started ignoring colour.” But four years in, she feels “disappointed” with her choice. “Nothing big and wonderful has happened in these four years. The magnetism and the thrill is gone.”

And so the stakes for the second presidential debate on Tuesday night could not have been higher.

Obama had spent days hunkered down at a resort in Williamsburg, Va., preparing for the debate. And it showed when the two men squared off in Hempstead, N.Y. Perhaps he fed off the energy of a live town-hall crowd, or perhaps the gravity of his drop in the polls had focused his mind. Whatever the case, he was energized and up to the task of sparring with Romney. Indeed, at one point it looked as if the two men would resort to fisticuffs as they circled closer and closer to each other in a heated back-and-forth over drilling licences on federal lands.

Asked point blank by an audience member what tax deductions he would eliminate to pay for his planned 20 per cent cut to tax rates, Romney did not give a specific answer. Obama used the opening to land one of his sharpest rhetorical blows. “Now, Gov. Romney was a very successful investor. If somebody came to you, governor, with a plan that said, here; I want to spend $7 trillion or $8 trillion, and then we’re going to pay for it, but we can’t tell you until maybe after the election how we’re going to do it, you wouldn’t have taken such a sketchy deal. And neither should you, the American people, because the math doesn’t add up.”

One voter said she was undecided because she was disappointed by Obama, but also feared that Romney would be a return to the policies of George W. Bush. To contrast himself with Bush, Romney talked about his energy plan, his plan to balance the budget, and his plan to crack down on Chinese trade practices. Obama seized the opportunity to make Romney out to be more extreme than the former president: “George Bush didn’t propose turning Medicare into a voucher,” he said.

Asked why requests for additional security for diplomats in Libya were denied by the State Department, Obama did not answer the question but said he took full responsibility. Meanwhile, Romney incredulously challenged Obama’s claim that he had called the event an “act of terror” the following day, only to be corrected by the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, who confirmed that Obama had indeed used those words.

The early reaction was that Obama had a better night than Romney. But it remained unclear whether his bounce-back from his catastrophic performance in the first debate would be enough to stop the Republican’s momentum.

Until his first faceoff with Romney, in Denver, the story of the election appeared to have been largely written. The race had been a dead heat all summer, with polls barely budging until the late-summer party conventions. Romney began a downward slide in public esteem with an ill-starred foreign trip where he was openly mocked by the mayor of London, and drew rebukes from Palestinians for comments blaming their poverty on culture. Romney got little lift from the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., perhaps best remembered for the sight of a creaky and cranky Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair. Meanwhile, Obama jumped ahead of Romney by four points after the Democrats’ gathering in Charlotte, N.C., where Bill Clinton stole the show by slicing and dicing Romney’s tax plan in his aw-shucks drawl, concluding that it didn’t pass basic “Arkansas arithmetic.”

And Romney, who had pitched himself as an economic Mr. Fix It, was looking incompetent, if not downright sinister—particularly after a secret video from a closed-door, $50,000-per-plate fundraiser surfaced in September. In his own words, the former CEO was saying that not only did he not care about the half the country who didn’t pay federal income taxes—he held them in contempt. By then, his campaign looked on the verge of disaster. “There are 47 per cent of the people who will vote for the President no matter what,” Romney said in the video. “There are 47 per cent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

Romney later said the comments were “just completely wrong,” but the damage had been done. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign was outspending Romney in swing states, running attack ads portraying him as a heartless and calculating vulture capitalist who destroyed communities and people’s lives for profit. Even conservatives were lashing out. In the Weekly Standard, conservative commentator William Kristol called the comments “stupid” and “arrogant.” “If you can’t beat Barack Obama with this record, then shut down the party. Shut it down. Start new, with new people,” said conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham. On Sept. 19, former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the Romney campaign was “incompetent.” “I was being polite,” she later added. “I really meant ‘rolling calamity.’ ”

So when Romney’s comeback arrived, it gobsmacked people in both parties. The President—perhaps complacent given his polling lead, out of touch, ensconced in a White House bubble or, as former vice-president Al Gore posited, simply light-headed from the Rocky Mountain altitude—was no match for Romney’s aggressive performance.

But it wasn’t just that Romney was crisp and focused where Obama was rambling and passionless. Romney also swerved so dramatically from the political right to the centre that Obama was left reeling. The President had come prepared to debate Gordon Gekko—the Mitt who disowned 47 per cent of the electorate. He found himself debating Mitt the Massachusetts Moderate. Romney, who had called himself “severely conservative” just a few months earlier, in the Republican primary contest, went back to sounding like the centrist, technocratic Massachusetts governor who’d once supported abortion rights and passed a health care reform package that later became a model for Obama’s.

In the Denver debate, Romney changed his tone—and his tune. While he had campaigned on repealing Obama’s health care law, he claimed in the debate that he’d keep parts of it after all. After mocking Obama in June for wanting to give federal dollars to states to hire more teachers and “more government workers” and declaring it was “time for us to cut back on government and help the American people,” Romney said the opposite in the debate. “I’m not going to cut education funding. I reject the idea that I don’t believe in great teachers or more teachers.” On the trail he had criticized government regulation as a “job-killer,” but in Denver, was suddenly singing its praises: “Regulation is essential,” he said. “You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation.” And on it went.

The Obama campaign was taken off guard, the President’s senior adviser and former White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, conceded last week. “Was I aware he was going to say, ‘I don’t have a $5-trillion tax plan, I don’t want to cut taxes for the wealthy? I love teachers, we ought to hire more’—all in contradiction to specific campaign platforms and statements that he has made in the past? I don’t think anybody expected that. I’m surprised,” Gibbs said on CNN’s State of the Union.

The Obama camp’s response was to call Romney a flip-flopper. At a rally in Virginia after the Denver debate, Obama joked that his opponent “got an extreme makeover.” But the zingers came a day too late, and they were simply not enough.

The problem was that Romney, who had been tarred a flip-flopper in the Republican primary and still won, had apparently taken away the lesson that if the public liked what he was selling, they didn’t seem to care what he had been selling before. His earlier critics were thrilled. Kristol called it the “best debate performance by a Republican presidential candidate in more than two decades.”

Political analysts had long predicted that Romney would pivot to the middle, the traditional move by candidates once they win their party primaries. But the choice of Paul Ryan as Romney’s vice-presidential running mate did not signal such a shift. The Wisconsin congressman was known for his conservative ideological fervour and a desire for large spending cuts that were included in the budget he crafted as the chairman of the House budget committee. Yet in his debate with Vice President Joe Biden, Ryan also struck a softer tone.

In his debate, Joe Biden tried a slightly different approach—imploring voters not to trust Romney, implying that he was hiding his true intentions. “Folks, follow your instincts on this one,” he said during an exchange over whether Romney and Ryan would cut Medicare benefits.

Obama’s debate performance on Tuesday was also largely aimed at denying Romney the political middle he so effectively seized in Denver. The President even brought up the 47 per cent comment. And Obama can take some comfort. While Denver allowed Romney to seize the momentum, the fundamentals of the election still favour the President. The economy is growing, albeit slowly. The stock market is up. The most recent jobs report was positive for Obama—a drop from 8.1 to 7.8 per cent unemployment. And Obama starts out with a structural advantage in the anachronistic electoral college system in which a handful of swing states play an outsized role in picking presidents. (Who can forget the importance of Florida in the 2000 election?) He already has a larger number of solidly Democratic electoral college votes than Romney has in his column. This means Romney needs to win a larger number of battleground states than Obama to rack up the 270 electoral college votes needed to win. Florida is leaning in Romney’s direction, but Obama maintains a lead in the critical state of Ohio. No Republican has ever won the White House without it. And if Obama can hold on to it, then Romney’s path is difficult indeed. As the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato wrote in his Crystal Ball analysis of the race: “Obama maintains more—and more plausible—routes to the 270 electoral college votes. The states Romney needs to flip are ones we still think favour Obama currently.” Those states include Nevada, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio.

Which explains why both candidates have been lavishing so much time and money on Ohio. On Wednesday, Paul Ryan was in suburban Cleveland with former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. Three days earlier, with her husband holed up practising for the debate, first lady Michelle Obama campaigned in Cleveland, making her signature pitch that mixes the personal (“He’s not just cute, he’s fine”) with the political: “While we still have a long way to go to completely rebuild our economy, there are more and more signs every day that we are headed in the right direction.”

But for all his sharp attacks on Romney in Tuesday night’s debate, Obama spent little time explaining the details of how he would balance the budget or sketching out new plans for his second term. Touting his record in averting another Great Depression may be enough for some voters, but perhaps not for all those who could decide a close election. “People like me,” said Martha Powers, the undecided voter in Virginia, “need a reason to go out and vote.”




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Barack Obama got shellacked in the first U.S. presidential debate

  1. “Shellacked in the last debate”? What a misleading headline since the story is about the first debate…

    • You read it wrong. The headlines said “first”

      • The headline says “last debate” on Google News and you can’t see the subtitle, so it is misleading.

      • If you have arrived here via Google news, the headline from google News still says ‘last’ debate, not first, and then the headline changes on this page.

      • She was just interpreting it. That’s all.

    • Google’s engines just print what they see, so I think MacLeans has corrected a typo-ed headline.

  2. You just wanted comments with that hyperbolic headline, didn’tcha? Change it, and maybe I’ll bother to read the text.

  3. This is Garbage talk. Romney is consistently conservative and pro-business and self-sufficiency. He is definitely not a “nanny” state kind of guy. If you look around yourself and like what you are seeing vote for Obama, heck once Iran Nukes us it won’t matter anyhow. But if you are not satisfied with the current situation, then you need to change it and Romney is a business man with a very successful record. The opposite is true of Obama. He was a “community organizer” whatever that entails. Sounds like an artsy fartsy made up title to me. All this type does is criticize and punish the doers in society and give the proceeds to the takers. Now if you’re a taker, or if your job is to redistribute for the takers then the choice is clear… its Obama all the way, but if you are patriot, with hopes of a great America then Romney is your guy. Debates mean nothing. All of this nitpicking is hog wash. The spinners spin and the talking heads twitter but ask yourself if after 4 years of Obama are you better off? Do you like $4 a gallon gas, and trillion dollar deficits because that is what you are going to get a lot more of if you vote for him. And remember – broke countries have no power. You can bank on that.

    • Romney put 13,000 Americans out of work and crushed several successful companies to make a fast buck as that “successful businessman” but go ahead and believe his lies.

    • Were Romney a consistent conservative, he could have easily funded the revenue-rich Olympics with corporate and otherwise private investment strategies, without pan-handling the public purse for his miracle turn-around.

      Either he couldn’t have bothered, or his vaunted equity experience at Bain is not a transferrable skill (which Mass. would have suggested anyway), or he is just plain incompetent.

      There’s nothing Obama has done poorly that Romney will not make a complete and utter shambles of. If Americans think with their hearts AND their heads, they won’t let that tragedy happen.

    • Gasoline prices are not controlled by Presidents.
      Romney fully believes in Nanny states as does Ryan. Each Asked for bailout money from the feds (Romney for the olympics @half billion and millions for lying Ryan for Wisconsin). If you believe that the poor caused America’s problems then you deserve Mitt. He was a lousy Governor and rest assured he will be a lousy president.

    • If you think that republicans are anything but war mongering robber barons then they have done a good job in keeping you stupid as well. The trillion dollar deficits are all run up by arrogant republican neo cons going into wars with reckless abandon while they neglect the working class americans by destroying the education system. Meanwhile while all of the jobs are being shipped overseas the republican fat cats are laughing all the way to the bank. And by keeping average americans ignorant they are able to buy there votes with simplistic pie in the sky rhetoric which average americans eat up. Wake up people!!! The robber barons have been around a long time. You need to realize that democrats are the best of a bad lot but they are the only party that at least tries to help the middle class.

  4. Any ordinary working stiff who thinks Romney is a better choice has their head in the sand.Obama is far from perfect, but Romney only cares about the wealthiest Americans. I can’t believe how thick-headed and ignorant Americans are. The undecideds seem to do no research on their own.

    • Ordinary working stiffs will have a place to work under Romney, 4 more years of your air head golden boy Obama and it wont be 47 million on food stamps it will be 300 million begging the chinese for a hand out. Wake up before it is to late, on November 6 take back out country

      • 47 is an interesting number. Is it the same number percentage wise that Mr. Romney suggested, to his wealthy patrons, that don’t work? What a comment and worse what a belief.
        I agree with gloat on this one, Romney will be worse than Obama for the US.

    • There’s nothing that is mediocre about Obama’s performance that Romney can’t make worse.

    • As an interested Canadian citizen I look at some of the comments of the “ordinary US citizen and wonder why so many ~~ignorant~~ comments are being made. If I wasn’t interested and didn’t do a bit of research on the subject I simply wouldn’t comment nor would I vote… I see that Obama has been left with a tremendous financial, and moral military burden and if it is taking a very long time to fix these problems, this does not surprise me, yet it seems that some think he ia magic and can oversome these problems in a few years.I would be surprised however, if there is even a small dent in the debts that the Bush administration caused. I have also noticed that President Obama appears to be constantly working on the problems without making a huge ceremony and donning a flight suit and sparklers.. He appears to be just going about the business of being a Commander and Chief as is expected of him. It seems to me that he would be more successful at accomplishing his job if he wasn’t constantly having to jump stupid hurdles that are continually thrown in his path (like the authenticity of his birth certificate)
      DO YOUR RESEARCH PEOPLE!!!! and please don’t do it on FOX NEWS!! go into every news site you can find online, even the ones you have to think about like Islam news, India news, news from the middle east, news from asia,,, google any question you have…no question is too stupid to ask.. but not asking any question is just plain stupid.

      • To say FOX is any different than CNN, CBS, CBC, ABC, NBC, BBC, PBS or NPR is like saying you can lift a turd by the clean end.

        • The first thing you’ve ever gotten right.

  5. It’s pointless to argue about politics. There are only shades of grey on every topic – no black or white yet everyone things they correct. Why waste your time?

    • Why post a comment discouraging others to post comments.. fairly pointless no>

  6. Your headlne made me think ‘yup, same reason I cancelled my subscription years ago – sensationalist neo-con fluff-spin’. Appears as if not much has changed at MACLEANS

    • Steady. I think Macleans has corrected a typo.

  7. For all the lefties – Obama had almost four years – and had no bills passed except for Health care. He never produced a budget – where was his time spent? When you work – it’s eight hours a day plus and, if in management – 12 hours plus per day and sometimes six days a week. What was Obama’s hours? Then, you have Romney – he produced. As a Governor as the Olympics fixer and he, if elected, will do the same for the country and for all and it won’t be easy and will take the four years in office to turn this all around. Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister Harper has done just that for his country – why not have a similar type individual for the USA? OR four more years of the same if Obama is elected. At least in my opinion.

    • The fact that you think Harper has fixed our country makes it very difficult for me to take you seriously.

      You are questioning Obama’s work hours? seriously? maybe read one of the articles written about the subject of one of America’s hardest working presidents before you criticize.

      • Maybe Harper has’nt fixed but he has been a steady and reliable hand at the wheel, which is why Canada is strong and why he has gained the confidence of the people and achieved a majority. At uncertain and scary times like these the last thing you need is an Obama who has devalued the US currency further and taken the debt from i think 4 trillion to about 14 trillion in 4 years !!

        I have seen articles that postulate that Obama is more of the same Bush policies, so if you want to see the USA recover its place in the world you have a choice called Romney. Many businesses have been on the brink and were brought back by BUSINESS people who have to deal with reality and real economy. if you want more of the same the vote Obama and soon Monopoly money will be worth more…

  8. Romney incredulously challenged Obama’s claim that he had called the
    event an “act of terror” the following day, only to be corrected by the
    moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, who confirmed that Obama had indeed used
    those words.

    Incredulously?

    Open challenge to anyone reading these comments. The president reporting that an Al Qaeda terrorist attack murdered a US ambassador on the anniversary of September 11 would be top of the fold headline news across the country. Agreed?

    Find me one news report on September 12 or 13 that referenced Obama’s Rose Garden speech, and declared in the headline that he called Benghazi a terrorist attack. Just one. I’ll bet nobody can.

  9. Romney is not a nanny state guy unlike Obama

  10. “He inherited a lot of awful stuff from Bush”. Whaddoes she mean he inherited anything from Bush? Sounds nothing like the Obama I know.

  11. C’mon. Rmoney just knows how to do these debates.

    Once the debates are over, Obama has it in the bag.

    Unless, of course, Rmoney decides too many people are voting Libertarian because of his stance on Obamacare and decides to court those voters and say, “Okay. Ah’m sorry, ma fella ‘Murcans. Obumacare is a dunce. I dun care fer it. If ya hatit, vote fer me kuz all end it ‘n’ tell tha Suprem Cour’ that it sha be remooved frum there lista’ thin’s ta voton.”

  12. Ms Savage clearly is stuck in her own bubble and has not followed the polling and the news from this side of the border, where even some of the MSM and left wing types are saying that Romney won the last debate and admitting (some openly) that it is either over for Obama or most definetley sliding in the wrong direction.
    On a seperate note Ms Savage – MSNBC called and your paycheck is ready.

  13. Under Obama, the national debt has increased from $10 to $16 trillion in only four years. He runs over $1 trillion dollar deficits every year. The U.S. credit rating has been downgraded twice under his watch. The first time that the U.S. credit rating was ever downgraded. Economic growth is anemic. Obamacare was passed against the wishes of most Americans(and now it has been admitted that death panels are included). He has been the king of regulation. He has wasted tax dollars on rip off green job companies like Solyandra. He helped GM make money on the Chevy Volt by requiring the Pentagon to buy a set number of the vehicles. He hasn’t formally presented a budget in three years. On Libya, he lied about the cause of the Al-Qaeda affiliated attack(even when he knew that it wasn’t because of the stupid film). He has now been forced to dump that campaign line of Al Qaeda being defeated. He tried to label the terrorist attack at Fort Hood as an instance of workplace violence. On Iraq, he was proved wrong about the surge which turned the tide of the war. Then, he fritters away the peace by removing all advisors and making the country more vulnerable to Iranian influence. In 2009, he does nothing to help the dissident movement in Iran. He expects me to pay for some lady’s(whom I don’t know) birth control through my health care plan.However, none of that is his fault because Obama is a leftist. Therefore, he is blameless even when the mistake is his. However, what would you expect from a community organizer(simply another word for lying professional loudmouth like Al Sharpton)? Obama cares for the middle class. What bull! His policies are hurting the middle class the most. He is using many of the same policies that screwed western europe. Read up on how the average middle class family income has dropped almost 10% under grand leader Obama. He stinks. Its great that Hollywood and his kids love him. So what! Most Hollywood actors, actresses, producers, and writers are drastically overpaid while working on movie and tv projects that are of poor quality.They get paid big bucks and mostly produce garbage. Obama and the Democrats care for the downtrodden. What crap. Look at cities like Detroit, Newark, and Chicago that have been Democrat run for over 80 years. Look at how these cities just keep declining under crooked Democrat leaders who offer the same old failed policies(and often play the race card at election time). Look at how California has declined since the late 1990′s when the Democrats came to control all levels of the state government. Check out Illinois where Gov. Quinn(26% approval rating) and his buddies in the Democrat controlled state legislature are driving the state into the ground.
    As for Romney, well he is a rich business man so he must be evil! He gives over 20% of his income to charity(how much do you leftist give?) well it must be a tax dodge because only leftists help the downtrodden(by telling other people to pay more). At Bain, he made a lot of money but also about 78% of their ventures ended up saving companies and making net gains in employment. But he made a profit too so thats bad. It would only be okay if he gained jobs but made no profit right? He is a staunch capitalist and we all know that capitalism is evil(but NDP style social democracy is faultless, right?) Furthermore, Romney must be a racist. After all, he is running against a black president. If Romney was not a racist, then he would insist that Obama run unopposed to make up for the racial crimes of past generations. Before you attack Romney, try doing a little research. Stop taking little snippets from the CBC and other mainstream media outlets. Don’t take your professors or fellow employees word for it. Read papers from both the left and right. Look at the CBC(or MSNBC) and then Sun News(or FOX News). You might be shocked to find that not every conservative is a devil or every liberal an angel.

  14. Hooked in a by misleading headline. Article more about second debate than first. Not the first time you’ve done that Macleans.

  15. How can anybody get shellacked by a corporate welfare bum who sold Amerika, still waiting for Democracy, by the pound before “when the wind changes, how quick we forget” as the song goes. Even when Obama loses, he wins because he is the genuine thing since early age. Now he is being highjacked by American BS politics which is a pathological game and problem in divided and conquered Amerika by crony interests like mentionned in the film “The United states of ALEC”. Obama’s convivial nature is now caught up in having to deal with Romney’s authenticity hoax to paraphrase Andrew Potter’s latest book by the same title. It seems that one has to be a rampant sociopath with a short memory span, dead eyes and no conscience to survive in politics.
    http://www.alecexposed.org/wiki/ALEC_Exposed

    http://www.democracynow.org/2012/9/27/the_united_states_of_alec_bill

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