US president Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney met in Denver for a contentious but largely unmemorable debate in which each man accused the other of lying about his plans for taxes, health care and other key domestic issues.
Romney went on the offensive early, hammering Obama on his economic record: “Look at the evidence of the last four years, it’s absolutely extraordinary,” he said.
“We’ve got 23 million people out of work, stopped looking for work in this country.”
Unemployment in the United States is currently 8.1 per cent, down from a peak of 10 per cent in mid-2009, when the country was in the midst of a recession. It has been dropping steadily but slowly since then - too slowly, for many Americans.
The Republican nominee presented a few details of his economic plan, perhaps in response to critics who have described his campaign as too vague. He offered a “five-part plan” for improving the American economy, which would include plans to bolster trade in Latin America, to balance the budget, and “champion small business.”
“Trickle-down government is not the right answer for America,” he said, accusing his opponent of relying too much on the government for economic growth. “I’ll restore the vitality that gets America working again.”
Obama admitted mistakes, acknowledging that he "hadn't been a perfect president," but sought to characterise Romney as out-of-touch and concerned chiefly with the wealthiest Americans. "Do we double down on the top-down economic policies?" he asked. "Or embrace a new economic patriotism that says America does best when the middle class does best?"
‘It hasn’t destroyed jobs’
The debate, the first of three between the presidential candidates, focused entirely on domestic issues – the economy, health care and the role of government.
It will be judged as much for style as substance, and aesthetically the advantage seemed to be Romney’s. The challenger looked energized, and told a few anecdotes to humanize himself to voters – talking about people he’d met on the campaign trail.
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Obama’s delivery was more methodical and lower-key, and he seemed thrown off-balance by some of Romney's attacks; he rarely went on the offensive against his opponent. At times he seemed almost irritated, looking down while Romney answered questions.
Yet there were few memorable moments, and the discussion at times seemed bogged down in details, the specifics of which were perhaps lost on many viewers. The first fifteen minutes, in particular, were dominated by an obscure discussion of deficits and tax loopholes.
Obama seemed most at ease discussing health care, which has been a centerpiece of his presidency. He defended his health care reform bill, the Affordable Care Act, even embracing the nickname – “Obamacare” – which Republicans have used as a slur. “I like that,” he told Jim Lehrer, the moderator.
Romney cited several studies which argue that the legislation – most of which does not take effect until 2014 – would lead to widespread job losses. He called it a government “takeover of health care.”
Obama pointed out that Romney, during his term as governor of Massachusetts, championed a similar bill at the state level.
“We’ve seen this model work really well in Massachusetts, because governor Romney did a good thing… in setting up what is essentially the identical model,” Obama said. “It hasn’t destroyed jobs.”
Obama also attacked the Republican nominee on his support for changing Medicare, the social health insurance programme for senior citizens.
Romney and his vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, have proposed a “voucher” programme, which would give seniors the option of purchasing subsidized private insurance instead of the public plan.
Romney insisted that his plan would mean no change for current retirees. “Our seniors depend on these programmes, and I know anytime we talk about entitlements people become concerned,” he conceded.
But most economists have concluded that a voucher programme would eventually bring about the demise of Medicare: private insurers would sign up healthier Americans, leaving the sicker (and more expensive) ones as a burden on the public scheme.
“When you move to a voucher system, you are putting seniors at the mercy of these insurance companies,” Obama said.
The presidential candidates will meet for two more debates this month, one focused on foreign policy, the other a “town hall”-style forum. Their vice presidential nominees will hold one debate.