Let's call a spade a spade. The truth of the first 2012 presidential debate is that Barack Obama got spanked by Mitt Romney. This is true whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, a fan of Obama or of Romney. In NFL football terms, it is the equivalent of the Chicago Bears 34-18 domination of the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night football this week.
But "Whoa!!!" you say. Obama is the great debater, Mr. Smooth Communicator. And the answer to that is, "Not last night he wasn't." Like any great athlete, the politician from Chicago is capable of having an off performance. Way off. Last night, Obama was reserved, cautious and so defensive-minded that he missed many game-breaking openings. Like the sometimes disappointing quarterback Jay Cutler, Obama seemed incapable of stepping up and elevating his performance during a really big game.
How did Romney win so decisively? Same as the Chicago Bears on Monday night: confident execution of his game plan on both offense and defense.
What was Romney's offensive game plan? First, take control of the debate. He did this immediately, and it often seemed as if both Obama and the lackluster Jim Lehrer -- who may want to go back into retirement and give up moderating presidential debates -- were asking his permission to speak. Second, Romney had excellent energy. He looked like he was enjoying himself as he explained his positions and refuted Obama's talking points. Phrases like, "middle-income families have been crushed under President Obama," "if you raise taxes, you will kill jobs," and "we are a nation that believes that we are all children of the same God" were delivered confidently by Romney. Voters tend to like leaders who are confident and enjoy what they do. Finally, the former governor of Massachusetts had excellent body language. He smiled. He stood tall and listened respectfully to his opponent. He looked Obama and the camera in the eye. It was not hard for a TV viewer to imagine Romney running an important White House meeting and making a critical national decision.
What was Romney's defensive game plan? First, neutralize Obama's well-known likability. In Romney's very first comment he congratulated Obama on celebrating his wedding anniversary at the debate and pleasantly quipped, "I'm sure this is the most romantic place you could imagine. Here with me." The audience laughed. Obama did not receive a laugh all night. Second, Romney forced his debate opponent into making unnecessary mistakes. Obama, for example, failed to differentiate his positions on Social Security and Medicare from those of the Republican nominee. This allowed Romney to assure older voters by saying, "I've got proposals to make sure Medicare and Social Security are there for them without any question." As they say in the NFL, "That was a great stop by the defense." Obama was forced to punt again and again. Finally, Romney did a credible job in explaining his opposition to the Obama plan for the U.S. health insurance system, an issue where the former governor is open to criticism due to his similar program in Massachusetts. Romney told the nation that Obamacare "has killed jobs" and that any reforms should only be done on a state-by-state basis. The federal government should stay out of health care.
By dominating on both offense and on defense, Romney's victory in the first presidential debate was decisive. Some wonder whether or not debates actually affect election results. This is a legitimate long-term question that political pundits and scholars will continue to debate. The results last night, however, were clear: Obama got spanked.
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