The first presidential debate showed viewers a Mitt Romney eager to confront President Obama, who countered with a portrayal of the Massachusetts governor as light on details and secretive.
While Romney spent much of the debate looking directly at his opponent at the other podium, President Obama was more likely to look into the camera to speak with Americans. "Let me tell you exactly what Obamacare did," he said as he turned to them at one point. At other times Obama asked viewers whether they really believed what Romney was telling them about his plans for taxes and other programs.
Likely Obama's most effective appeal to the camera was also a critique of Romney's plan to repeal Obamacare and Dodd-Frank financial reform (named for the out congressman, Barney Frank, who pushed it). He said Romney wasn't offering details on what would replace them: "At some point I think the American people have to ask themselves, Is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans to replace secret because they're too good? Is it because somehow middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them?"
The debate began as an economic argument pitting two supposed philosophies: "top-down economics" versus "trickle-down government." Then on Medicare the candidates agreed they had very different positions, with Romney introducing what is called a "voucher" program alongside Medicare. But the pundit class reacted more to the differing demeanors of the two men, with Romney easily more aggressive than Obama.
Romney often vigorously rattled off statistics while seeming to challenge a largely unresponsive president at the other podium. Romney seemed to happily extend a discussion, for example, at the debate's outset that largely focused on questioning the validity of Romney's own tax plan. Romney commanded time from the podium and insisted on the last word despite moderator Jim Lehrer sometimes trying to corral him.
At one point, Romney asked that he be allowed to keep talking, and Lehrer had to say, "No, no, let's not," while Obama smiled.
Obama's swipe on Romney's lack of specifics was only highlighted by the Republican offering one oddball detail about how he'd cut the deficit — by cutting Big Bird, even though, "I love Big Bird." It's a reference to the GOP's once often stated desire to end federal funding for public broadcasting.
The debate, which was intended to include domestic topics, did not include any questions about LGBT issues. Obama included repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy among a list of accomplishments he said were made on behalf of the middle class. For his part, Romney used a coded phrase meant for social conservatives who say same-sex marriage is being forced on religious people.
"In that line that says we are endowed by our creator with our rights," Romney said, noting the country's founding documents, "I believe we must maintain our commitment to religious tolerance and freedom in this country."
Without any question on Romney's pledge to ban same-sex marriage via the Constitution or Obama's support for marriage equality, the low bar for the gayest moment was set with a joke at the debate's outset. President Obama praised his wife because Wednesday was their wedding anniversary. And Romney quipped, "Congratulations to you, Mr. President, on your anniversary, I'm sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine — here with me."