Here are five key questions ahead of tonight’s much-hyped first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney in Denver. The debate is about domestic policy, and the moderator, PBS’ Jim Lehrer, has said he will stick largely to questions about the economy, health care and “the role of government.”
1. Can the president handle Romney’s zingers?
Romney aides are saying their candidate will go after Obama sharply on a number of issues. This is not surprising. Romney is trailing overall and in nearly every swing state.
The debate provides perhaps Romney’s best chance to start a comeback. And the most obvious way to do that is with a line or two in the debate that accurately critiques Obama, ideally one that the incumbent can’t easily rebut and is both short and interesting enough to be replayed over and over on television so it reaches undecided voters who tend to pay little attention to politics.
For Obama, the challenge is not only to answer Romney’s charges, but also not appear too irritated by them. An overly optimistic defense of the economy by the president, for example, would be unwise: unemployment remains unusually high, and a majority of voters say the country is on the wrong track.
2. Will the president and Lehrer force Romney to explain the details of his economic plans?
Romney has promised to reduce income tax rates by 20 percent for most Americans, but pledges that the government would still bring in the same amount of tax revenue overall. He also says he won’t raise the overall tax burden on middle-class American families.
The non-partisan Tax Policy Center and other budget experts have argued accomplishing those three things at once (cutting taxes by 20 percent, not raising taxes on any middle-income American and bringing in the same revenue as under current law) is mathematically impossible. Romney has said this analysis does not include the elimination of some tax deductions that would he would propose if elected. But he won’t now give a full list of the deductions he would get rid of, arguing that should be worked out with Congress.
Romney has also pledged to reduce government spending to 20 percent of GDP, down from its current 23 percent. He has not listed all of the programs he would cut to achieve that goal either.
Expect to see both Obama and Lehrer press this point.
3. Can Romney persuasively defend his health care stand?
After the Supreme Court upheld “Obamacare” in June, it largely stopped being a subject on the campaign trail. And Romney does have a clear position on the issue: he would seek to reverse whatever parts of the law he can if elected.
But why he is so eager to dump the health care law? While Romney faced this question in the Republican primary, it was always on a stage full of candidates, many of whom were not very skilled in debating. He did not face strong, sustained questioning on his health care position.
Now, Obama (and Lehrer) can press the former governor on this question: Why is a health care law that requires people to buy insurance, gives subsidies and tax credits to help them afford it and expands the role of both Medicaid and private health insurance companies appropriate for Massachusetts but not the rest of the country? The health care law passed in Massachusetts by Romney in 2006 was a model for what Obama did nationally four years later.
4. How does the president explain 8.1 percent unemployment and Washington’s hyper-partisanship during his tenure?
Perhaps Obama’s two biggest pledges during his campaign were to fix the economy and make Washington less polarized. He has accomplished neither. Unemployment, while lower than when the president entered office, remains stubbornly high. The ranks of Americans who are jobless, those who are not only unemployed but have given up looking for a job and those who have part-time jobs but want full-time work is more than 20 million people.
Washington is perhaps even more broken than when the president entered office, as last year Americans watched as the parties struggled to achieve what had before been routine: raising the debt ceiling.
The Republicans in Congress are no doubt more to blame for the dysfunction in Washington than Obama, as they have repeatedly rebuffed his attempts at compromises. And every president has limited ability to shape the American economy.
But Romney and Lehrer will force Obama to face these two shortcomings of his tenure.
5. Can Obama or Romney handle a curveball?
Debates usually turn into long exchanges of boring talking points. But Lehrer is likely to try something to draw out the thinking of the candidates on an issue on which they have not been extensively prepared. (Here are seven issues theGrio suggests he could ask about that haven’t been in the campaign dialogue.)
When confronted with an unfamiliar issue or question, Romney tends to announce positions to the left of the broader Republican Party, leading party activists to criticize him and eventually causing him to shift to the political right. He can’t afford spending days explaining himself at this point in the campaign.
The president can tend to articulate views better-suited for an academic than a politician, like when he said “the private sector is doing fine,” back in June when asked about the sluggish economy. The statement was technically accurate, but little comfort for Americans who are out of work.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr