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Robert Reich

The first presidential debate: Romney's style trumps Obama's substance

Romney stayed on script while Obama struggled to think on his feet in the first presidential debate, Reich writes.

By Guest blogger / October 4, 2012

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is seated with Ann Romney as his son Craig and grandson Nick as they play a game of Zenga in the family holding room before the start of the first presidential debate in Denver, Wednesday. Reich writes that Romney was repetitive but effective while President Obama came across as passive.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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In Wednesday night’s debate, Romney won on style while Obama won on substance. Romney sounded as if he had conviction, which means he’s either convinced himself that the lies he tells are true or he’s a fabulous actor.

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Robert is chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Clinton. Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including “The Work of Nations,” his latest best-seller “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future," and a new e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His new movie, "Inequality for All," is available on Netflix. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.

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But what struck me most was how much Obama allowed Romney to get away with: Five times Romney accused Obama of raiding Medicare of $716 billion, which is a complete fabrication. Obama never mentioned the regressiveness of Romney’s budget plan — awarding the rich and hurting the middle class and the poor. He never mentioned Bain Capital, or Romney’s 47 percent talk, or Romney’s “carried-interest” tax loophole. Obama allowed Romney to talk about replacing Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act without demanding that Romney be specific about what he’d replace and why. And so on.

I’ve been worried about Obama’s poor debate performance for some time now. He was terrible in the 2008 primary debates, for example. Expectations are always high — he’s known as an eloquent orator. But when he has to think on his feet and punch back, he’s not nearly as confident or assured as he is when he is giving a speech or explaining a large problem and its solution. He is an educator, not a pugilist, and this puts him at a disadvantage in any debate.

Romney stayed on script. If you look at a transcript of his remarks you’ll see that he repeated the same lines almost word for word in different contexts. He has memorized a bunch of lines, and practiced delivering them. The overall effect is to make him seem assured and even passionate about his position. He said over and over that he cares about jobs, about small businesses, and ordinary Americans. But his policies and his record at Bain tell a very different story.

The question now is whether Team Obama understands that our President must be more aggressive and commanding in the next two debates — and be unafraid to respectfully pin Romney to the floor.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best economy-related bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. This post originally ran on www.robertreich.org.

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