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First Debate: Obama's And Romney's Five Bests And Worsts

Francesca Bessey, Miguel Arreola |
October 3, 2012 | 11:55 p.m. PDT


The first presidential debate took place on Wednesday night. (Barack Obama, Creative Commons)
The first presidential debate took place on Wednesday night. (Barack Obama, Creative Commons)
Wednesday's presidential debate featured plenty of zingers from both sides. Here are what we think are the five best (and worst) statements made by the two candidates:

President Obama


1. "Or do we embrace a new economic patriotism that says America does best when the middle class does best?"  

This was a nice early articulation of a point that Obama would go on to emphasize multiple times in the debate. It also included some key words voters love: "new," "patriotism" and "best."

2. “Well, for 18 months he's been running on this tax plan. And now, five weeks before the election, he's saying that his big, bold idea is, 'Never mind.'"

Here, Obama calls Romney out for seemingly changing his tax plan at the last minute, or at least remaining extraordinarily vague about it for months. And with just the right amount of snark to make his opponent look absurd.

3. “I had five seconds before you interrupted me”

Another healthy dose of Obama snark. Technically, Jim Lehrer paid him back for it about a minute later when he observed that Obama had taken a lot more than the extra five seconds, but it sure got a laugh out of the crowd.

4. “And the fact is that if you are lowering the rates the way you described, Governor, then it is not possible to come up with enough deductions and loopholes that only affect high-income individuals to avoid either raising the deficit or burdening the middle class.”

Perhaps Romney's biggest error during the debate was failing to explain how exactly he was going to raise the revenue necessary to balance the budget without increasing taxes for anyone. Obama succinctly identifies this problem here, and connects it with his theme of the evening - strengthening the American middle class.

5. “The auto workers that you meet in Toledo or Detroit take such pride in building the best cars in the world, not just because of a paycheck, but because it gives them that sense of pride, that they're helping to build America. “

American pride? Check. Building America - both literally, in the manufacturing sense, and economically? Check. Supporting the auto industry and its workers? Check. Shout-outs to specific locales? Check. Hell, he even managed to mention that American cars are the best. This was a good move to appeal to working class people his focus on the middle class otherwise overshadowed.



1. “And the way we do it is $2.50 for every cut, we ask for $1 of additional revenue, paid for, as I indicated earlier, by asking those of us who have done very well in this country to contribute a little bit more to reduce the deficit.”

This statement by Obama, for starters, was not entirely true (read more here). The worst parts about this argument, however, may have been its lack of comprehensibility and Obama’s failure to describe a mechanism by which it could be achieved.
2. “And governors are creative. There's no doubt about it. But they're not creative enough to make up for 30 percent of revenue on something like Medicaid.”

The message of this comment was perhaps understood but it still held a negative connotation. The last thing President Obama wants to do at this point is to degrade the competence of our state governors.
3. “You know, four years ago, I said that I'm not a perfect man and I wouldn't be a perfect president. But I also promised that I'd fight every single day on behalf of the American people, the middle class, and all those who were striving to get into the middle class. I've kept that promise and if you'll vote for me, then I promise I'll fight just as hard in a second term.”

President Obama had every right to highlight the past four years, but in his closing statement, the President did not talk about anything else. In his last speech, Obama should have emphasized what future progress will be made for the American people if he is reelected, instead of clinging to the past so heavily.

4. "I think it was a terrific debate"
Though this closing statement is generally considered as a term of courtesy to be given at the end of a debate, tonight’s debate was rather lackluster. Obama’s performance was described by many as professorial (excepting a few moments of wit), and he missed many opportunities to attack Romney on certain hot-button issues, particularly the 47 percent of Americans Romney supposedly doesn't care about.

5. “So we did work on this, [healthcare] alongside working on jobs, because this is part of making sure that middle-class families are secure in this country.”

Obama’s hard-core focus on the middle class already threatens to alienate working class voters, but a statement like this crosses the line. It is not middle class Americans who are hurt worst by a poor health care system. It is the members of working class, the poor elderly, the undocumented and the unemployed—all of whom Obama has pledged to help in the past.


Governor Romney


1. “I think it's not just an economic issue, I think it's a moral issue. I think it's, frankly, not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in, knowing those burdens are going to be passed on to the next generation and they're going to be paying the interest and the principal all their lives.”

The truth of Mitt Romney’s statement was felt by young and old alike. One of the biggest issues of this year’s election that directly affects voters is the deficit, and younger voters are extremely aware that the next generation of economic stability is extremely dependent on the actions of today’s government.

2. “Now, and - and I've talked to a guy who has a very small business. He's in the electronics business in - in St. Louis. He has four employees. He said he and his son calculated how much they pay in taxes, federal income tax, federal payroll tax, state income tax, state sales tax, state property tax, gasoline tax. It added up to well over 50 percent of what they earned."

This is both an excellent refutation to Obama’s claim that his policies have helped small business, and an example of the personal touch Romney employed in tonight’s debate. The personal touch is especially important considering that Romney has taken so much criticism for being out of touch with the American people.

3. “I believe we must maintain our commitment to religious tolerance and freedom in this country.”

When Romney began this point with “we are endowed by our creator with our rights,” it seemed like he was quickly going down the wrong path, but when he steered back toward the idea of “religious tolerance and freedom,” Romney was able to make one of the strongest arguments in the debate. At a point in time where social issues have been overshadowed by an economy plagued by calamity, Romney was able to eloquently assure the American people in a single sentence that one of their most basic rights had not been forgotten.

4. "The other thing we have to do to save Medicare? We have to have the benefits high for those that are low income, but for higher income people, we're going to have to lower some of the benefits. We have to make sure this program is there for the long term…And, by the way the idea…came from Bill - Bill Clinton's chief of staff. This is an idea that's been around a long time”

As St. Louis Post-Dispatch put it, Bill Clinton was actually the winner of tonight’s debate. He was mentioned multiple times and always as an objective good for the candidates to measure up against. Obviously, Obama is bound to take more advantage of this, as Clinton is a member of his own party. But Romney turned the tables on him by commenting that the Clinton Administration endorsed a Medicare plan similar to his.

5. LEHRER: "All right, Governor. Governor, tell - tell the president directly why you think what he just said is wrong about Obamacare?


ROMNEY: "Well, I did with my first statement."

Mitt Romney was praised for his ability to retort the President’s lines of argumentation with ease. This statement perfectly described the main – and most powerful – weapon that Romney brought to today’s debates: preparedness. Also, it was nice to get a taste of Romney snark for a change.



1. “Well, first of all, I will eliminate all programs by this test, if they don't pass it: Is the program so critical it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?”

Romney may have been trying to legitimize his subjective and callous perspective of what government programs are "unnecessary," but there is nothing scientific, verifiable, or otherwise legitimate about it. Borrowing from China is not a measurable standard of worth. And if it were, well, that would just be racist.

2. “You put $90 billion into - into green jobs. And I - look, I'm all in favor of green energy. $90 billion, that would have - that would have hired 2 million teachers. $90 billion.”

Romney emphasized early on in the debate how making our country energy independent and creating jobs are top priorities, and then proceeded to criticize Obama for creating jobs in the American energy sector. There are far worse initiatives into which our government puts money that should be spent on education.

3. “Spain spends 42 percent of their total economy on government. We're now spending 42 percent of our economy on government. I don't want to go down the path to Spain.”

Americans have a chronic fear of high taxation, but Romney's statement is misleading and completely ignorant of several high-tax European nations who are considered to be very socially successful. Sweden, Norway and Denmark are examples.

4. “One of the magnificent things about this country is the whole idea that states are the laboratories of democracy”

To suggest that any center of government - whether state of national - is the laboratory of democracy is in complete violation of democratic principle. People are the laboratories of democracy. States are the servants of democracy. The federal government is the enforcer of democracy and as such, it shouldn't be passing off its democratic duties to state governments.

5. “So there's no economist that can say Mitt Romney's tax plan adds $5 trillion if I say I will not add to the deficit with my tax plan.”

Sorry, Romney, but "because I say so" has never been an argument-winner.


Read more of Neon Tommy's coverage of the 2012 Presidential Debate here.

Reach Columnist Francesca Bessey here.

Reach Contributor Miguel Arreola here; follow him here.



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