WASHINGTON — As many as 50 million Americans are expected to tune in Wednesday night for the first face-to-face showdown between President Obama and Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger.

Historians suggest that televised debates rarely decide a presidential election. But memorable one-liners (Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again” to Jimmy Carter), uncouth mannerisms (think: a sweaty Richard Nixon or a sighing Al Gore) and long-winded, wonky answers can shape public perception.

The first of the three presidential debates will be about domestic affairs, but expect both candidates to try to bring up other issues to make themselves look good and the other guy look bad. Here’s an (unscientific) list of things to watch out for in Round 1 of Obama vs. Romney:


Playing It Safe

As the front-runner, the president has the most to lose by appearing to be too aggressive or unveiling potentially controversial initiatives. Polls suggest he scores higher than Romney on the always-important “likeability” index. For those reasons, many observers believe the president will play it safe yet defend his record against the inevitable attacks from Romney.

“I think his challenge, first of all, is to protect his lead,” said Alan Schroeder, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and author of “Presidential Debates: 50 Years of High-Risk TV.” “So this may not be the opportune time for big, bold departures from what he has said previously.” 

Tax cuts

Congress has so far punted on whether to extend tax cuts for all Americans (Republican plan) or for all except households earning $250,000 a year (Democratic and Obama plan). Expect to see Obama continue his mantra that Romney would cut taxes for the rich and enact a budget plan that would raise taxes on the middle class.

“Meanwhile, there has been very little scrutiny of President Obama’s tax plan and hopefully Romney will ask questions about it,” said William McBride, chief economist at the conservative Tax Foundation. 

Obamacare and Medicare

The president will likely have to defend a health reform law that remains unpopular with many Americans. At the same time, voters appear hesitant to embrace major changes to Medicare and Medicaid as advocated by Romney and running mate Paul Ryan.

Brookings Institution senior fellow Henry Aaron believes that overall, the advantage here goes to Obama.

“Romney is in a difficult position of having been for it before he was against it,” Aaron said of similar health care reforms that then-Gov. Romney helped shepherd into law in Massachusetts. “I think there is a lot of confusion with respect to where Mitt Romney is on Medicaid and Medicare.” 

Jobs, or lack thereof

Moderator Jim Lehrer is certain to ask the president about the lingering high unemployment rate — 8.1 percent in August — and lackluster job creation numbers. It’s been the central theme of the Romney campaign thus far, so expect Obama to be on the defensive while trying to convince Americans how much worse it would be without his administration’s actions.

“His goal will be to raise the number of voters who blame Bush, not him, for our economic circumstances,” Frank Donatelli, chairman of the Republican organization GOPAC and part of several past presidential debate-preparation teams, told Politico recently. 


Although an accomplished speech maker, Obama can be long-winded and prone to getting lost in the weeds when it comes to policy. That’s a habit his debate team is trying to break. At the same time, expect the president to try to come across as assertive yet cool even in the face of attacks by Romney.


Playing hardball

Trailing in the polls, Romney is expected to take the offensive for much of the debate, especially when it comes to the president’s job-creation record. Of course, being too aggressive carries risks, too. But Northeastern’s Schroeder said this is Romney’s chance to “make the sale.”

“This is his best opportunity to try to keep the debate centered on the president’s record and try to be on the offensive as much as possible,” Schroeder said.

Jobs and the economy

An oft-repeated criticism of the Republican nominee is that he has been long on criticizing Obama’s economic record but short on providing details of his own strategy. Expect to hear plenty of facts and figures (43 months of unemployment above 8 percent, etc.) but perhaps more details on how he would use his businesses skills in the Oval Office.

“There has to be a contrast between a Romney recovery and Obama stagnation,” former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, one of Romney’s primary opponents, recently told “Face the Nation” on CBS. “You first have to make sure people say, ‘Yeah, Obama’s stagnation is unacceptable,’ but then you have to say, ‘By the way, the better guy will be Romney.’”

The 47 percent

Romney will have to address his secretly recorded comments on the 47 percent he has said are too dependent on government, because even if Lehrer doesn’t bring it up, Obama surely will. One likely answer: Too many Americans need food stamps and government support because of the Obama administration’s failure to create jobs.

Foreign policy

Foreign policy is on the agenda for the second and third debates, but Romney may attempt to bring it up Wednesday. He has hammered the president on the administration’s relationship with Israel, its policies toward Iran and security concerns in the Middle East.

“I think if it hasn’t been on the minds of voters, it should be especially after the Sept. 11th attacks (in Benghazi, Libya),” said James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.


Observers said Romney will also have to overcome the Democrats’ characterization of him as an aloof millionaire out of touch with most Americans. Republicans have attempted to counter that perception since the Republican National Convention with stories about Romney’s charitable works, his family and his religious beliefs.

But Romney has also stressed that the debates are about much more than candidate personalities and who lands the best punches.

“It’s about something bigger than that,” Romney said in Denver on Monday night, according to Bloomberg. “These debates are an opportunity for each of us to describe the pathway forward for America that we would choose.”

Correction: This article was changed online to correct Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again” quote in the second paragraph.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: