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Presidential debate: Two views of federal government's role

October 03, 2012|By Robin Abcarian
  • Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, right, and President Barack Obama face off in their first debate at the University of Denver in Colorado.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, right, and President… (Michael Reynolds / AFP/Getty…)

Jim Lehrer, moderator of the first presidential debate, had the habit of asking President Obama and Mitt Romney to delineate their differences with each other on important issues of the day. It was perhaps his way of trying to create a spark Wednesday night. Unfortunately, as a technique, it didn’t really work — at least not at setting off oratorical combat. 

Case in point, this question from Lehrer: “Do you believe, both of you, there’s a fundamental difference between the two of you as to how you view the mission of the federal government?”

The question gave each man the opportunity to distill, in a rather subdued way, his own philosophy, without even mentioning his opponent’s.

WHAT THEY SAID: The first presidential debate

Obama focused on the how the government can make a difference in people’s lives, and gave examples that evoked in a less ambiguous way the sentiment he was trying to express over the summer when he said, “You didn’t build that.”

“But I also believe that the federal government has the capacity to help open up opportunity and create ladders of opportunity and create frameworks where the American people can succeed,” Obama said. “Look, the genius of America is the free enterprise system and freedom. The fact that people can go out there and start a business, work on an idea, make their own decisions.

“But, as Abraham Lincoln understood, there are also some things we do better together. So in the middle of the Civil War Abraham Lincoln said, let’s help to finance the transcontinental railroad, let’s start the National Academy of Sciences, let’s start land-grant colleges, because we want to give these gateways of opportunity for all Americans. Because if all Americans are getting opportunity, we’re all gonna be better off. That doesn’t restrict people’s freedom, that enhances it. What I have tried to do as president is apply those same principles.”

PHOTOS: Scenes from the first presidential debate

Romney focused more on the country’s founding documents, their emotional resonance, and keeping government in check.

Gesturing to representations of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution at the back of the debate stage, Romney said, “In that line that says we are endowed by our Creator with our rights, I believe we must maintain our commitment to religious tolerance and freedom in this country. The statement also says we are endowed by our Creator with the right to pursue happiness as we choose. I interpret that as, one, making sure that those people who are less fortunate and can't care for themselves are cared by -- by one another.”

He continued: “We’re a nation that believes we’re all children of the same God, and we care for those that have difficulties, those that are elderly and have problems and challenges, those that are disabled.... And we look for discovery and innovation — all these things desired out of the American heart to provide the pursuit of happiness for our citizens. But we also believe in maintaining for individuals the right to pursue their dreams, and not to have the government substitute itself for the rights of free individuals. And what we’re seeing right now is, in my view, a trickle-down government approach which has government thinking it can do a better job than free people pursuing their dreams, and it’s not working.”

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Twitter: @robinabcarian

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