Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Romney wasn't stellar, but Obama fell short

By Alan Schroeder, Special to CNN
October 4, 2012 -- Updated 1800 GMT (0200 HKT)
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
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1022 GMT (1822 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT