Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Following what is widely believed to be a lackluster performance by President Obama in his first debate with Mitt Romney, the Obama campaign has tried to undermine the accuracy of his opponent and explain glaring omissions from the president's arguments.
“President Obama didn’t view it, perhaps as much as Governor Romney did, as a performance,” said David Axelrod, Senior Strategist to the Obama campaign, in a conference call Thursday morning. “I readily concede that that’s not the president’s strong suit in these events.”
Over and over, the campaign stressed that Obama had truth on his side, even if the delivery left something to be desired.
“Mitt Romney gave a good performance,” Axelrod said. “The problem with it was none of it was rooted in facts.”
But last night, “fact” was allowed to remain in the eye of the beholder. Moderator Jim Lehrer didn’t make much of an effort to vet the myriad citations and figures from each candidate. To make matters more confusing, each candidate was allowed to spit out many talking points across a too-wide range of topics in answers to too-broad questions, with time limits woefully ignored.
For those keeping score at home, PolitiFact has started giving the Truth-o-Meter treatment to last night’s claims. Out of 18 remarks rated so far between the two candidates, only three came out as “True.” Two of the three belonged to Mitt Romney: a claim that Obama once promised to "cut the deficit in half," and that the president failed to cut health care premiums by $2,500. The one "True" that PolitiFact has given Obama so far is for saying he relied on the same advisers for "Obamacare" that Romney did for "Romneycare."
All the rest were half-true, mostly true, mostly false, or just plain false—so distortion is not the one-sided phenomenon that either campaign would have you believe.
More than what either candidate said, and whether or not it was true, perhaps most surprising was what the president didn’t say. Even given the broad questions, Obama avoided hitting certain phrases and lines of attack that his base had expected to hear. There was no mention of the “47 percent” and nothing about Bain Capital, which have both figured prominently in Obama campaign commercials, mailings, and press releases.
That prompted liberal supporters to express frustration with the president’s performance. Once the debate was over, MSNBC host Chris Matthews went so far as to ask, “Where was Obama tonight?”
The campaign brushed those omissions off as being part of the strategy.
“President Obama was focusing on the questions that were asked,” explained Axelrod. “He was not as intense as Romney on dropping particular lines. I understand a lot of our supporters would have liked him to enter into the record Bain, the tax returns, the 47 percent, but his choice was to talk about the things people were worried about in their own lives.”
Axelrod called Romney an “artful dodger” and said that made the debate a more challenging kind of event. Asked about whether the campaign had budgeted more prep time in advance of the next debate, Axelrod said they would just focus on strategic adjustments.
“We have to strike a balance. You can’t allow [Romney] to stand there and basically manhandle the truth about their own record and ideas and about yours, and not deal with that. I’m sure this is a takeaway from this debate.”