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 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT