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Barack Obama and Mitt Romney no doubt have it rough at the first presidential debate next Wednesday. But what about moderator...
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney no doubt have it rough at the first presidential debate next Wednesday. But what about moderator Jim Lehrer?
His job is to make two of the most scripted and steady debaters in politics break stride and make some news when they face off in Denver.
It's not easy, but it can be done -- by lobbing questions the candidates themselves would hate to hear. Not exactly "gotchas." More like the bona fide head-scratchers they've struggled to answer through the whole campaign -- either because their usual talking points don't fly or because they can't quite square past positions with current stances.
For President Obama:
1. What do you say to the millions of Americans who might have jobs today if you had made the 2009 stimulus package bigger, as many leading liberal economists argued it should have been. You came to office promising bold action, and in the eyes of many of your supporters, blinked -- with devastating effects on the economy.
This is a hope-and-change meets reality question, and Obama could decide to blame Republicans, as he has throughout the campaign. But Obama has some reasons to take credit for a legitimate accomplishment early in his first term.
Many economists agree that his $787 billion stimulus package -- Obama's first big achievement as president -- helped save the economy from imploding. What it didn't do was create a robust recovery, and the country will be shaking off that hangover for years to come.
Nor did the stimulus dramatically decrease the unemployment rate as Obama's advisers predicted, though, and stimulus has become a dirty word for most Americans.
Liberals in Obama's own administration pressured the president to go bigger, and pumping more money in might have given the economy a bigger boost -- or lessened the long-term pain. If Obama believes the stimulus worked, then wouldn't a bigger stimulus have worked better?
Obama had the congressional majorities to make it happen, but he offered a smaller compromise number in part to win Republican votes. Ultimately, every House Republican voted against the $787 billion number. So it seems like maybe the compromise wasn't worth it.
2. Washington seems as toxic today as it was the day you took office. The country was looking to you to unite it, and you yourself admitted recently that you failed. In retrospect, do you feel you overestimated your own ability to bridge divides in Washington, and how do you answer people who say simply: Obama let me down?
It might be hard for the president to confront the ghost of Obama past, and any answer that comes down to "It's all the Republicans' fault" might sound defensive and tinny. But that's where the president tends to go.
"Obviously, the fact that we haven't been able to change the tone in Washington is disappointing," Obama said at the Univision town hall in Florida. "We know now that as soon as I came into office, you already had meetings among some of our Republican colleagues saying, 'How do we figure out how to beat the president?' And I think that I've learned some lessons over the last four years, and the most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."
Republicans have pounced on this admission, which seems to undercut the rationale for Obama's 2008 candidacy.
Obama will seek to convince voters he's still hopeful even though he hasn't been able to cut any big deals with Republican leaders. But if he couldn't get it done in 2008, why would anyone think he could get it done in 2012?
So Obama's under pressure to assure voters that he could somehow break the gridlock in a second term -- especially if, as looks likely, Republicans keep control of the House and government stays divided. Obama's challenge is to play the blame game without looking like he's not taking responsibility.
3. People lost jobs in the recession and lost their homes. Why haven't you done more to help Americans facing home foreclosure?
Obama's approach to the housing issue has been called cautious and carefully calibrated. His liberal base expected him to target mortgage lenders and banks more aggressively and to throw more money at the problem. But the painful slide in housing prices has continued.
"We will not roll out an aggressive housing plan," the president reportedly told Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in early 2009, according to Bob Woodward's new book.
The president has defended his measured approach, telling "60 Minutes" that he's "helped several million homeowners avoid foreclosure and [made] sure that the terms of their mortgage were ones that they could pay."
But Romney has attacked Obama hard in swing states like Nevada, which has suffered a steep decline in home prices. But the Republican is vulnerable on this issue, something Obama is sure to point out. "Don't try and stop the foreclosure process," Romney told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last year. "Let it runs its course and hit the bottom."
4. How can you promise to protect entitlements when you've put them on the table?
"No. 1, I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, there will be no changes in Social Security," Vice President Joe Biden said in Virginia last month. "I flat guarantee you."
But Obama has been receptive to changing Social Security and Medicare under the right conditions -- both rhetorically and during the debt ceiling talks in the summer of 2011.
On the trail, Romney has accused the president of cutting more than $700 billion from Medicare as part of his health care overhaul. Obama will say Paul Ryan's budget ends Medicare as we know it by creating a voucher system. This debate has also played out on the 2012 airwaves.
But the truth is more complicated. Republicans and Democrats seem to know some form of entitlement savings is necessary in order to cut the deficit.
If the president is pressed on the issue, he might find himself on the defensive.
5. Why haven't you shown leadership on gun control?
The July movie theater massacre that killed 12 and injured 58 others happened just a half-hour away from the debate site in Denver. The president called for "common-sense" rules that would prevent a "mentally unbalanced individual" from getting an assault rifle, but he has not been out front on the issue since. He wrote an op-ed after the shooting of then-Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords in January 2011, but he never pushed new legislation.
Many Democrats believe Al Gore's support for gun control cost him dearly in 2000, and Obama would prefer not to talk about the issue. But gun laws play well in some suburban areas.
Romney has said additional gun laws would not have stopped the Aurora shooting. In the immediate aftermath, the GOP nominee said discussion about gun control should wait.
If Obama chose, he could attack Romney for changing his position on guns from his 1994 run for Senate in Massachusetts through his two bids for the presidency.
For Mitt Romney:
1. Many people watching tonight deduct mortgage interest from their income taxes, slashing their tax bills by thousands of dollars every year. Can you guarantee to those viewers that you won't eliminate that cherished tax break for the middle class, and at the same time, name one tax loophole you do plan to eliminate to help balance the budget?
When it comes to the Tax Code, Romney has promised specifics but largely avoided providing them. He promises to close loopholes as part of his plan to balance the budget, but he's steadfastly refused to delve deep.
When David Gregory asked him on "Meet the Press" for an example of a tax loophole he'll close, he dodged. "Well, I can tell you that people at the high end, high-income taxpayers, are going to have fewer deductions and expenses," he said. "I'm bringing down the rate of taxation but also bringing down deductions and exemptions at the high end so the revenues stay the same, the taxes people pay stay the same. Middle income people are going to get a break."
The Obama campaign has seized on the lack of specificity to suggest that Romney secretly plans to cut highly popular deductions for mortgage interest or charitable contributions. Chicago jumped on an interview that Ryan gave a local affiliate this month in which he said, "I don't want to get into all these things," when asked about the mortgage interest deduction.
2. How can you keep the popular, expensive parts of the health care reform act but get rid of the underpinnings that pay for them?
Romney promises to repeal and replace the federal health care overhaul, but with what exactly? When asked how the U.S. will balance the budget, he always says he will start by repealing the $1 trillion health reform law. So how exactly will he pay for whatever reforms he keeps?
The father of "Romneycare" has softened his tone recently. During the Univision forum last week, he embraced being called the health reform law's "grandfather" by Obama's campaign. "I don't think he meant that as a compliment but I'll take it," Romney said.
The law itself remains unpopular, but majorities like key components.
Romney said on "Meet the Press" that he backs keeping two of the law's key -- and most costly -- provisions, saying he wants to "make sure that those with pre-existing conditions can get coverage" and that he would "assure that the marketplace allows for individuals to have policies that cover their family up to whatever age they might like."
But if Romney keeps those planks, how would he pay for them without an individual mandate, which is anathema to conservatives? He did institute the mandate under reform as Massachusetts governor; what makes sense on the federal level?
3. Why is it fair that you pay a lower tax rate than many low-income and middle-class Americans?
Romney said on "60 Minutes" that his 14 percent effective tax rate last year is fair, even though it's lower than most middle-class families. He says he wants the Tax Code to be progressive, but he also wants to encourage investment.
"The devil is in the details," he told CBS's Scott Pelley. "The angel is in the policy, which is creating more jobs."
Romney is certain to get pressed on the Tax Code in the context of his enormous wealth -- thought to be around $250 million. Obama will use any tax question to portray Romney as out of touch with the middle-class.
Obama and Romney are tied in the latest POLITICO poll on who is best able to handle the issue of taxes, and the president is seen as having a double-digit advantage on who is looking out for the middle class.
Romney needs to somehow figure out how to make himself -- and his policies -- seem relatable to average Americans.
4. Why did your running mate Paul Ryan need to give you more tax returns than you're sharing with the voters?
Some of the most awkward moments of the 19 GOP primary season debates came whenever Romney was asked about releasing his tax returns.
Last Friday afternoon, Romney released his entire 2011 tax filing and the summary of his tax rate from the past 20 years but with no income information.
Newsweek reported recently that Ryan turned over 10 years of full tax returns to the Romney campaign as part of the VP vetting process. This offers a fresh way into an old story. It's unimaginable that Romney releases more information, but he could still be asked about it.
Romney's dad, George, who sought the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, released 12 years of full returns. Romney has released two.
"Maybe," Romney awkwardly told CNN's John King when asked before the South Carolina primary if he'd follow his father's example.
5. Name three things you disagree with in Ryan's budget plan.
Romney has indicated he doesn't agree with everything in his running mate's plan to slash the deficit, which Democrats have relentlessly attacked in TV advertisements, but he's declined to be specific. This has allowed Romney to get the positive acclaim for going "bold" without taking the heat for the plan's most controversial elements.
If Romney finishes the race without identifying the parts he agrees and disagrees with in the Ryan plan, it will be harder for him to claim a mandate should he win. His campaign has said he will put together his own plan "as president."
One of the reasons Romney has avoided specifics is that he wants to make the election as much of a referendum on Obama's job performance as possible. But picking Ryan showed he recognized the limits of this strategy and needs a positive vision for the future. Romney's campaign this week has wholeheartedly embraced the notion that this is a "choice" election between two different paths for America. The debate will force the GOP nominee to lay out what path he'd take.