Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Romney wasn't stellar, but Obama fell short

By Alan Schroeder, Special to CNN
updated 2:00 PM EDT, Thu October 4, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alan Schroeder: In Denver debate, Romney was more nimble than Obama
  • Schroeder: Both candidates too often engaged in parallel monologues
  • He says as sometimes happens with first debates, the entire event felt a little wobbly
  • Schroeder: Maybe next time the candidates will no longer have opening-night jitters

Editor's note: Alan Schroeder, a professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University, is the author of "Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV." Join him for a live Facebook discussion on Thursday Oct. 4 from noon to 1 p.m. ET on what are the best moments in the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

(CNN) -- Incumbent presidents often take it on the chin when they return to the debate stage after a four-year absence. Wednesday night in Denver added another such instance to the history books. It's not that Mitt Romney was particularly stellar, but rather that President Obama fell short.

Watch the replay of the debate
Did you miss the first presidential debate? You can watch the full event online on CNN.com.
Alan Schroeder
Alan Schroeder

In an untested format for presidential debates, with two-minute opening statements followed by open-ended discussion, the candidates found themselves having to move fast and think on their feet. On this point, Romney came across as the more nimble performer. He seemed alert to his surroundings in a way that Obama was not.

Still, for both candidates, the long weeks of intense coaching stood in the way of genuine dialogue. Each man appeared so intent on regurgitating his canned lines that direct interaction took a back seat. Despite the best efforts of moderator Jim Lehrer to get the candidates to talk to each other, they too often engaged in parallel monologues. For both candidates this meant passing up a huge opportunity.

Opinion: Romney shakes up the race

Consider a few specific moments from the debate.

Romney: Not looking for $5 trillion cut

Romney's reference to having learned about fibbing from his five boys represents a classic of debate prep: the premeditated one-liner that combines a positive statement about its speaker (in this case, I'm a family man and a wise parent) with a smackdown of the opponent (don't believe what Obama and Biden have been saying about me.) This double-pronged approach offered Romney a way to call his opponent a liar with a coating of sugar on top. Whether or not the ploy actually worked rests with the beholder, but Romney deserves credit for successfully shoehorning the line into this debate.

Obama's response was to smile, which is fine. But it would have been much more effective for him to come back with a line of his own (citing his own experience as a parent, for example) as a means of reminding everyone that Romney was not the only dad on the stage. Obama should never have let himself be compared to a naughty child.

Romney: I love Big Bird but ...

Romney's line about Big Bird is one of those pop cultural references that politicians like to drop because they think it makes them sound in touch with average citizens. In this case, however, the attempt backfired on Romney. Why? Because he cited the Sesame Street stalwart as a symbol of excessive government spending. You can mess with a lot of things in America, but entire generations of voters have grown up with Big Bird.

Other, less cherished totems of federal overspending would have better served the candidate as negative object lessons. Romney somewhat redeemed himself by explaining that he does not want to borrow money from China to pay for PBS. Nonetheless, Big Bird should be off limits.

Romney has made cultural allusions in debates past, from George Costanza on Seinfeld to Al Gore inventing the Internet, with equally clunky results. It's time to drop these references from his repertoire.

Romney: Banks reluctant to give loans

Oversight of Wall Street was a potential arrow in Obama's quiver, yet even as he made his case, the president's heart did not seem to be into it. Strangely, for someone so practiced at the mechanics of television, Obama had difficult maneuvering the cameras. He delivered the "does anybody think?" part of the message directly to camera, but when he reached the payoff, "then Governor Romney is your candidate," Obama looked away from the lens.

This was a rookie mistake and something of a surprise from someone so well versed in using the camera as a communication tool.

Obama: 'Please elaborate' on health care

Inevitably, the president was going to bring up Romney's health care program in Massachusetts during this face-off, so for debate-watchers it was just a question of how adequately Romney would defend himself. Thanks to his opponent, he got a little help right out of the gate. Obama's request of Romney that he "please elaborate" dripped with gratuitous sarcasm, and Obama immediately followed the crack with a smile about twice as large as it needed to be, a smile consisting mostly of gritted teeth.

Opinion: It wasn't just Romney who won

Romney's defense of his Massachusetts record supplied the Republican nominee with one of his stronger moments of the night. He managed to spin Romneycare not as evidence of flip-flopping, but as an example of his ability to work in a bipartisanship fashion. Aimed straight at independents, this was a signal Romney needed to send, and the look on Obama's face suggests that he knew the governor had gotten the better of him.

Obama: Occasionally you have to say no

For President Obama, this critique of Romney was one of his sharper lines of the night. Yet it came as the final response before the candidates' closing statements, far too late in the process to do him much good. The point Obama was making, that a president must hold true to his beliefs, is a valid one. Still, it could have been made even more forcefully had Obama raised it earlier, in a way that placed Romney into a defensive crouch.

In short, this was a better debate for Romney than for Obama. But as sometimes happens with first debates, the entire event felt a little wobbly.

Read a transcript of the debate

Let's hope that by the time Round 2 rolls around, the candidates will have gotten beyond their opening-night jitters, beyond the mysteries of the format and beyond being overprogrammed by their coaches.

See what users were sharing during last night's debate

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Schroeder.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT