By William M. Welch, USA TODAY
President Obama and Mitt Romney exchanged charges over tax and economic policies in their first presidential debate Wednesday, with the Republican challenger promising lower tax rates and cuts in government workers while the president said Romney's numbers don't add up.
Romney accused Obama of misrepresenting his tax plan, which Romney insisted would not produce higher tax bills for middle-income families and charged the president had failed to deliver on his promise to reduce the federal deficit.
"It's going to take a different path,'' Romney said. "Not the one we've been on.'' He said that middle-class Americans "have been buried ... they've been crushed" by Obama's current policies.
Obama said Romney's promise -- to lower tax rates while reducing loopholes, exemptions and other tax breaks that will prevent a loss in overall revenue to the federal government -- defies math as well as reality. "It's not possible to come up with enough loopholes and exemptions,'' Obama said. "It's math. It's arithmetic.''
The two campaign rivals squared off at the University of Denver. There was an early moment of levity when Obama referred to first lady Michelle Obama -- sitting in the audience -- as "sweetie" and told the crowd that it was their 20th anniversary. Romney extended his congratulations and quipped, "I'm sure this is the most romantic place you could imagine, here with me."
The joking stopped there. The two debated vigorously over health care, with Romney faulting Obama for spending the first part of his term focused on reforming health care rather than creating more jobs. In fact, he said, the health care plan approved by Congress at Obama's urging has done the opposite: "It has killed jobs,'' Romney said.
Obama responded that his plan is no government takeover of health care but means insurance companies "can't jerk you around'' by denying coverage.
Romney, who says he would repeal Obama's health reform plan, blamed Obama for pushing his health care plan through without Republican support.
"Something this big, this important has to be done on a bipartisan basis,'' Romney said.
Obama responded that he used the same advisers to create his plan that Romney did with his own program in Massachusetts, and that he used Romney's plan as a model. He said since enacting his national plan, the rising cost of insurance premiums has slowed. He also said that repeal would take insurance away from 15 million people while increasing the costs of medicine for seniors.
"The primary beneficiaries of that repeal are insurance companies,'' Obama said.
On the economy, Obama said Romney's proposals would cut taxes by $5 trillion and spend an additional $2 trillion on defense that the military has not asked for. But Romney disputed the president's representation of his proposals.
"Virtually everything he described is not my tax cut,'' Romney said. "I will not reduce the share paid by high-income individuals. ... I will not raise taxes on middle-income families.''
Obama responded that Romney's plan has changed. "Now five weeks before the election, he's saying his big, bold idea is 'never mind.' ''
On health care, Romney acknowledged he had touted his Massachusetts health reform as a national model, as Obama noted. But Romney said he did not intend for a federal, national program to be created, but rather individual states should consider the Massachusetts model.
"What we did in Massachusetts is a model for the nation state by state,'' Romney said.
Romney said he would cut government programs and government workers, though he said job losses would be handled by attrition rather than firings.
Romney repeatedly blasted what he called "trickle-down government" intended to help people. Romney said as president he would cut federal subsidies, such as the money going to PBS, and said he would "eliminate all programs that are not worth borrowing money from China'' to pay for.
"I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I like Big Bird (but) ... not going to keep spending on things we must borrow money from China to pay for," he said.
"The president said he'd cut the deficit in half. Unfortunately, he doubled it,'' Romney said.
Obama responded by describing the economic devastation the nation experienced in 2008, when he was elected, with the near collapse of the nation's financial system.
He said the deficit was swollen by "two wars that were paid for on a credit card, two tax cuts that were not paid for'' as well as government programs and the economic crisis. He said Romney, while debating GOP rivals during the primaries, pledged to oppose even a plan that would raise just $1 in taxes for each $10 in government spending that is cut because of his party's opposition to any new taxes.
"If we take such an unbalanced approach, that means you are going to be gutting our investment in schools and education'' and other programs aimed at economic growth, Obama said.
Romney said he would "work on a collaborative basis'' with Democrats in Congress and "sit down on day one'' with the opposition if elected president.
Obama responded that it's not enough "just saying I'll sit down. You have to have a plan.''
Obama said leadership requires being able to say no to people in your own party and said Romney "has not showed that willingness'' during a primary season in which Romney moved to the right on some issues.
Romney promised to create 12 million new jobs, though he did not say how he would do so. "I'll get incomes up again,'' Romney said.