The first debate between President Obama and his challenger Governor Mitt Romney was spirited, cordial and enlightening in terms of each candidate's clear statement of his positions. I believe also that the conventional wisdom that Romney won is correct. As a rule, political debates do not produce clear winners and losers, but this one did. Obama did not make any major gaffes -- neither did Romney -- but it was clear Obama was not at his best. He reminded me of President George W. Bush looking at his watch during a debate with Governor Bill Clinton -- you got the feeling he wanted to be somewhere else.
The way I saw it, Romney was sharp on the economy and Obama did not respond effectively.
The first was Romney's criticism of the President's focus on health care reform at a time when the nation was engulfed in the worse economic situation since the Great Depression. That is a point that I and others have made before, and it is compelling. Romney also compared his own experience with health care reform as Governor of Massachusetts when he worked with a legislature overwhelmingly Democratic, with that of President Obama whose health care plan received almost no support from Republicans. Something as big and important as health care reform demands bipartisan support. Obama could have replied that he found no Republicans to work with, but he went ahead without them and now his program is vulnerable.
Second, Romney nailed Obama persuasively for failing to embrace the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission which the President had created. Here too I and others have criticized the President for failing to seize Simpson-Bowles as an opportunity for a bi-partisan solution to the fiscal crisis. Obama had no coherent response to this charge either.
And third, Romney was passionate about the importance of economic growth and business, especially small business, while Obama time and again lashed out at business. One can argue that some businesses have made mistakes, but business is still the primary engine of economic growth. I am well aware that there are many gaps in Romney's program, but his repeated focus on creating jobs distinguished him from the President in that debate. And if any of Romney's "zingers" found its target, it was surely his gibe that President Obama was going to raid Medicare by $750 billion to fund Obamacare. It left Obama flat footed.
I have no doubt that debate will move the needle a bit in Romney's favor, though probably not enough to change the balance in any of the swing states. But there are three more debates to come -- two of them between Obama and Romney -- and after this one, I anticipate they will receive much attention. The next one is on foreign policy and the continuing carnage in the Mideast suggests that it could be an even longer night for the President. This could yet turn into a real horse race.
Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements.