With the presidency hanging in the balance, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney clashed sharply Wednesday in their first debate, trying to convince voters they’re uniquely qualified to lead the country to full recovery from the worst economic downturn since the 1930s.
The economy and domestic issues were the focus of the 90-minute showdown between the two presidential candidates, the first of three nationally televised face-offs with an audience expected to total in the tens of millions. They met at the University of Denver at a time when the country remained closely divided between the two and millions of Americans are looking for the best path to restore jobs and paychecks. Jim Lehrer of PBS moderated the first debate.
“We’ve begun to fight our way back,” Obama said at the outset, arguing that his policies are starting to lead the country back. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
Romney countered by telling of people who have come up to him in recent days asking for help finding work for themselves or their families. “We can help, but it’s going to take a different path,” Romney said. “The path that we’re on has been unsuccessful.Trickle down government will not work.”
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The debate opened with a personal moment, Obama noting it was his 20th wedding anniversary and he’s the “luckiest man on earth.” Then he launched into a recitation of what he called progress on the economy.
“Gov. Romney has a perspective that says if we cut taxes skewed toward the wealthy and cut regulations, we’ll be better off. I have a different view,” he said. He would stress education and training, and reduce the federal deficit in a “balanced way.” He called for a “new economic patriotism” that says “America does best when the middle class does best.”
Romney joked that the debate was clearly the most romantic place Obama could be on his anniversary. Then he got serious, noting his encounters with people struggling to keep jobs, or who have lost jobs.
“We can help, but it’s going to take a different path, not the one we’ve been on,” he said, not one that would cut taxes for the rich. Romney described his five part plan, including a path to a balanced federal budget, getting tougher with China and being friendlier to small business.
“I know what it takes to get small business growing again,” he said. Obama, Romney charged, has a view that emphasizes taxing more, regulating more and growing government. “I’ll restore the vitality that gets American working again,” Romney said.
Romney called Obama’s approach “trickle-down government.” Obama, asked to respond, suggested corporate tax rates should go down, but he also wants to close loopholes for companies shipping jobs overseas. On energy, Obama said, he and Romney agree domestic energy production needs to be boosted. But Obama also wants to promote “energy sources of the future,” like wind and biofuels.
Romney said Obama had exaggerated the tax cut he proposes. “The people who are having a hard time right now a re middle income Americans,” Romeny said, adding middle income people are being “buried,” a phrase used by Vice President Joe Biden this week. Romney was not precise about how Obama was exaggerating.
“I’m not looking to cut massive taxes,” and pledged “no tax cut that adds to the deficit,” though he would not provide specifics. Romney would retain Bush-era tax cuts and slice income tax rates 20 percent across the board. Obama would retain the Bush rates only for families earning less than $250,000 and individuals making less than $200,000.
The candidates will debate again Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., and on Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla. Vice President Joe Biden will debate Republican nominee Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin on Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky.
Heading into the debate, the race boiled down to a series of charges and countercharges backed by waves of negative TV ads seen in swing states (only about 10 states are really seen as up for grabs). Romney argues that he has the business skills to help create jobs and that Obama’s policies , which support government spending and regulation, have slowed the recovery. Obama counters that his fixes are working, albeit slowly, and that Romney’s tax cuts would help the wealthy and make deficits worse.
Voting already has begun in 35 states.
High on the list for Wednesday: disagreements over taxes, government spending, the new government health care mandate and immigration.
Obama has an edge over Romney in most national and swing state polls. But Romney holds the edge on the economy. A Gallup poll released Wednesday found that voters think Romney would better handle the economy by 49 percent to 45 percent. The survey also showed slightly more voters think the economy will be better if Romney wins.
Part of the voters’ judgment is likely to involve their perceptions of how things are going, and economic indicators are mixed. Unemployment has topped 8 percent since February 2009, the month after Obama took office, an unusually long stretch for such a high rate. But the president can argue that unemployment has slowly dropped since its 10 percent peak two years ago.
The economy grew at a sluggish 1.3 percent annual rate in the second quarter of this year, hardly considered a healthy pace. But it did grow, and it has been expanding since the Great Recession of 2007-09 ended more than three years ago.
Consumer confidence, a key barometer of public mood, jumped last month, but even that spike only brought it back to its February level, according to data compiled by the Conference Board, a New York-based research group.
And household income continues to lag. A study by Sentier Research found that in the three years ending in June, inflation-adjusted median household income tumbled 4.8 percent, even worse than the 2.7 percent drop during the recession itself.
To Romney, those numbers are strong evidence that the economy needs help, and that a bloated government and its spiraling debt has hurt it badly. Leading up to the debate, he argued that there’s been a huge redistribution of wealth from the wealthy to lower income people, and his camp has been citing a 1998 recording of Obama backing the idea.
Earlier this week, the Obama campaign launched an ad in seven swing states aimed at Bain’s ties to a China-based appliance firm. A Bain affiliate bought a small share of the company 14 years ago. The Romney campaign called the ad “overboard.”
Democrats have urged Romney to release more of his tax returns; he’s released returns from 2010 and 2011. Those disclosures have raised questions about his investments, and McClatchy has reported that the firm used some companies and partnerships in the tax havens of Luxembourg, Ireland and the Grand Caymans four years ago to channel $689 million in loans to a U.S. company that it co-owned.
McClatchy said tax experts saw the “circuitous paper chain” as probably “structured to avoid certain taxes for passive investors, including blind trusts for the Republican presidential candidate and his wife.”
Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki called on Romney to answer questions at the debate that have been raised in the last few days about whether he benefited from his offshore holdings.