From Amsterdam at 3 AM, I Watched the First Presidential Debate: Obama Better Do Better Next Time

After arriving in Amsterdam dog-tired on a bus from Brussels due to an absurd 24-hour Belgian train strike, I steeled myself to stay up until 3 a.m. to begin watching the first presidential debate on CNBC. Forgive me not remembering the hosts, especially the woman, who made me think I'd been watching Fox News.

First, the debate. And fair warning I'm an avid Obama supporter -- especially against former Governor Romney, but I was a bit disappointed with the president's opening statement during which he appeared ill at ease and not up to par.

Romney had prepared himself better, at least to the extent he appeared generally more confident. Of course, if one listened carefully one could clearly tell that beneath the smiles and "presidential" bearing he didn't really have much to say.

Obama, even with more ammunition in his arsenal, stammered a bit from time to time, even as he gave more specifics re his accomplishments, while reminding the national audience about the economic mess he inherited.

The problem, of course, is that style often trumps substance, which, politics aside, helped John Kennedy over Richard Nixon, as well as Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter.

Do I trust that the majority of Americans carefully listened to what was said, rather than how it was delivered? Sadly, I don't, and have to hope that the president is holding his best for the next two debates. Although with early voting it is not the wisest choice. Not to mention that he can't count on all of the viewers to come back to see how he does.

This is not to say that Obama didn't regain his authority on many occasions, reminding us of Romney's suggestion to kids that they borrow money from their parents. Certainly he was dead-on reciting the benefits of his health care program, during which he, in a show of good humor, referred to it as "Obamacare," an appellation Republicans created to disparage rather than praise him. By using the term "Obamacare," the president effectively neutralized the GOP's ill intent and scored some points.

He also reiterated his championing of education, intending to hire 100,000 teachers and more police, and cited his progress developing the potential of more environmentally friendly energy sources such as wind and solar.

Romney spoke in generalities, albeit with an even tone. In so doing, he reminded Obama and all of those watching that he supported education, but wanted it left to the states. His calm demeanor in putting forth that viewpoint came during a segment when Moderate Jim Lehrer asked the two candidates in what areas the federal government should exercise control.

Obama had indicated a desire to give all kids equal opportunities to reach their potential with national programs designed to achieve that goal. Romney didn't seem to get it or just wouldn't buck his Tea Party backers in declaring that states would be the best arbiters. Except that all states do not have the same test scores, indicating they're not doing an equal job preparing their young residents to realize what they might accomplish.

The same could be said for health care, wherein Romney seems to think that states should be free to effect whatever care they deem appropriate. He said he was proud of the program created while he was governor in Massachusetts, but didn't seem to believe it to be a bad policy if other states provided lesser care.

Obama for his part allowed Romney to restate his and running mate Paul Ryan's false charge that the president cut $700 billion-plus from Medicare, when most analysts have agreed the cut is to medical providers, not to benefits the elderly will receive.

Yet, at the end of the debate, at least on CNBC, the hosts and commentators such as Larry Kudlow mostly touted Romney's victory and all the "specifics" he had put forth. Only John Harwood, CNBC's man on the scene at the debate took issue with their viewpoint, as well as the two Democratic pundits CNBC allowed on the air to rebut their pro-Romney assertions.

So, for me it was a mixed bag. In one sense Romney won, in that many expected Obama to pulverize him, and I did not expect to see an occasionally sedated and defensive posture by the president. Romney seemed self-assured and friendly, even as he gave no concrete solutions. However, for him to look good, he merely had to not fail unduly.

So, I suggest that the president not worry about taking the gloves off. There is so much to combat Romney and his minions. Their inordinately selfish and rigid social policies, whether on abortion, gay rights and stem cell research. The disastrous economic policies that brought our nation to the brink of financial ruin.

Their insensitive every-man for-himself approach to health care and education. And the fact, despite all the tumult about letting gays in the military, almost all agree it has had no ill effect despite the ominous and hateful warning of the GOP right-wing, with which Romney now allies himself.

I very much hope the more combative Vice President Joe Biden will next Thursday night be an opening act for a reinvigorated Barack Obama the following week. I'll be watching the VP debate from Paris, having just arrived on a flight from Prague.

Michael Russnow's website is