DENVER President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney offered competing visions Wednesday night of how they would lead the country out of the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, each promising voters in a combative first debate that he had a better plan to create jobs, reduce the deficit and move the nation forward.
The president and Romney tangled forcefully over taxes, with each candidate claiming to offer the most help to improve the lives of the middle class. Obama implored Americans to have patience as the economy improves and he warned against changing course midstream, while Romney said it was time for new ideas and leadership in the White House.
“Are we going to double down on the top-down economic policies that helped to get us into this mess,” Obama said, “or do we embrace a new economic patriotism that says, ‘America does best when the middle class does best?”’
For the first part of the debate, the two candidates commandeered the stage, taking control away from the moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS, as they kept trying to rebut each other. At times, the moderator seemed as if he had left the stage, a result of new rules that were intended to allow for a deeper and more freewheeling conversation.
“You’ve been president four years,” Romney said at one point, ticking through a list of promises he said Obama had not lived up to. Drawing contrasts with the president’s approach, he said, “Middle-income families are being crushed.”
The tenor of the discussion underscored the seriousness of the issues facing the country, particularly the rising debt burden. The sharp exchanges often sounded academic, with Romney and Obama delivering a blizzard of statistics.
In the opening half of the debate, Obama sought to link Romney to former President George W. Bush, pointing to the tax cuts he signed. For his part, Obama sought to link himself to the economic policies of President Bill Clinton.
Romney pushed back against the Democrats’ arguments that he is proposing a form of “trickle-down” economics that would benefit the rich and hurt the middle class. He accused Obama of supporting “trickle-down government.”
The debate, held at Magness Arena on the campus of the University of Denver, was the first of three face-to-face encounters between Obama and Romney. The 90-minute encounter took place a little more than a month before Election Day, though voters across the country are already casting early ballots.