We asked our TCF experts on what was missing in the first 2012 presidential debate. Here's what they had to say:

Vice President of Policy and Programs Greg Anrig, writes on employment and retiree benefits; Social Security solvency and reform; economic security; and tax reform:

When President Obama accepted the Democratic nomination at last month’s convention, he said that this election provided a choice between “two fundamentally different visions for the future.” That forceful, accurate, and politically effective description of the stakes on November 6 was virtually absent from last night’s debate, as Mitt Romney sought to blur the contrasts between his ideological framework and Obama’s while the president mostly nodded. After moderator Jim Lehrer asked Obama, “Do you believe there's a fundamental difference between the two of you as to how you view the mission of the federal government?” the president talked about Abraham Lincoln, the transcontinental railroad, and land grant colleges without ever getting around to how that history contrasts with the modern conservative movement’s hostility toward the federal government.

Another missed opportunity to underscore fundamental differences occurred when Governor Romney, discussing Medicaid, said: “One of the magnificent things about this country is the whole idea that states are the laboratories of democracy. Don't have the federal government tell everybody what kind of training programs they have to have and what kind of Medicaid they have to have. Let states do this. And, by the way, if a state gets in trouble, well, we can step in and see if we can find a way to help them. But — but the right — the right approach is one which relies on the brilliance of our people and states, not the federal government.”

President Obama never responded to this by pointing out that one of the main reasons why federal health care reform was necessary is that most states don’t have the resources, capabilities, or desire to provide health insurance to their uninsured residents. For many decades the laboratories of democracy have demonstrated that they simply can’t and won’t provide coverage on their own. Indeed, even under the Affordable Care Act, which provides abundant federal resources to enable states to expand Medicaid and create new health insurance exchanges, many states are balking. The “states’ rights” conservative credo that Romney repeated last night has helped to perpetuate poverty and inequality in the United States, which is why undecided voters would have benefited from hearing a clear reply about the federal government’s essential role.

Fellow Mark Thoma is a professor of economics at the University of Oregon and curator of the Economist's View Blog:

Unemployment is the most important problem that we face presently, yet very little time was spent discussing plans to create new jobs. I would have liked, for example, for the moderator to have pressed each candidate on the need for infrastructure spending. How much, if any additional immediate infrastructure spending would they would support to strengthen our future growth prospects and provide employment opportunities? What other measures would they take?

The other issue that I would like to have heard more about would be the plans that each candidate has to create a more secure future for the working class. The risks that workers and their families face have increased in many ways in recent decades, and it would have been nice to hear a lot more about the views each candidate has on how we can reduce the uncertainties that households face in today's world.

Fellow Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration, and faculty chair of the Center for Health Administration Studies at the University of Chicago:

For the first time in my adult life, presidential candidates have focused on the importance of protecting Medicaid—not just for low-income people, but also for elderly and disabled people within middle-class families.

However, many issues were not debated last night. The process by which the issues were debated is also flawed. There is too little penalty for candidates who make bold assertions with little supporting evidence or detail.

Within health care policy, I would have liked to see some attention to the grossly-neglected issue of long-term care. The Affordable Care Act included the CLASS act, which would be helpful in assisting disabled people who need assistance in their homes. However the CLASS act is in abeyance because it's unclear that the program's current premium structure is actuarially sound. These issues won't go away. The longer we wait to address them, the more difficult they will be.

Fellow Dan Alpert is a founding managing partner of Westwood Capital, LLC. He has researched and written extensively on the housing and credit bubbles and the resulting economic crisis:

The president, in an excess of effort not to look acerbic and mean, missed the opportunity to, among other things:

  • force Romney to detail the tax loopholes that he proposes to close;
  • close the loop on Romney's blatant endorsement of the same Laffer Curve that brought us two debt crises in the 1980s and the 2000s;
  • advance a solid infrastructure rebuilding program for the country aimed at both improving our infrastructure and employing excess labor;
  • shut Romney down on his accusation that Obama's Medicare plan would strip the program of an existing $716 billion. Not true, the Obama plan has identified ways of saving $716 billion in future growth in Medicare spending through exactly the type of efficiencies that Romney, as head of Bain & Company, would have wholeheartedly supported.

Finally, the president failed to offer a forceful rejection of Romney's oft repeated accusation at several times during the debate that his administration had doubled the federal deficit. This was an egregious statement by Gov. Romney as the deficit resulting from the final budget of George W. Bush was $1.4 trillion, or 10.1 percent of GDP, and the deficit for fiscal year 2012 was $1.1 trillion, or 7.3 percent of GDP. The deficit didn't double; it went down by 28 percent measured in GDP. Perhaps, as was widely appreciated by many of us watching, Romney meant to say “national debt” even though he mentioned the deficit multiple times, but the large increase in the national debt was the result of Bush-era wars and the financial crisis that occurred during the Bush presidency. Obama had an opportunity to both call Romney out and then parry a possible correction with respect to the national debt.

Policy Associate Benjamin Landy:

The Mitt Romney who took the stage in Denver last night bore little resemblance to the Mitt Romney who has been on the campaign trail the last eighteen months. Instead, he looked and sounded much more like the moderate Mitt Romney who ran for office in Massachusetts in 1994 and 2002. This was the infamous Etch-a-Sketch moment we had been promised.

One of Romney's more startling reversals was his claim that he was “not looking for a 5 trillion dollar tax cut” and wouldn't cut taxes on the rich. In fact, nearly every independent study that has examined Romney's tax plan has concluded that lowering rates by 20 percent across the board would cost about $5 trillion in lost revenue over the next decade. (This does not include the estimated $2 trillion Romney would also add to the deficit by increasing defense spending.) Although Romney has suggested he would make up for this shortfall by eliminating unspecified deductions in the tax code, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has shown that it is mathematically impossible for Romney's plan to be revenue neutral without significantly raising taxes on the middle class. They also found that even if Romney were to eliminate every tax break for the wealthy, except for those he's already promised to preserve, people with income over $1 million would still get an average tax cut of $87,117.

Romney appeared to dismiss this analysis, saying “no economist can say 'Mitt Romney's tax plan adds 5 trillion' if I say I will not add to the deficit.” But “just trust me” is not a convincing rejoinder, much less a policy proposal.

Fellow Robert C. Hockett, is a professor of law at Cornell University Law School:

Many commentators congratulated the two candidates for sticking to 'substance' last night. Glaringly absent from the putatively 'substantive' discussion, however, was any engagement at all with the two most enormously substantial challenges facing the nation – one short-to-medium term, the other one longer term.

Our short-to-medium term challenge is the ongoing post-crisis debt-deflation with which the nation continues to struggle. Many millions of Americans now languish in the shadow of massive mortgage debt overhang, steadily draining consumer purchasing power from the economy. Until that private debt overhang is eliminated the nation will continue to wrack up year upon year in a growing chain of 'lost' years that is every bit the counterpart of Japan's 'lost' decades. Yet neither candidate had anything at all to say about how we are goint to begin writing down mortgage debt on the requisite scale – or indeed any scale at all. Nor did either candidate have anything serious to say about how we are to stimulate renewed growth affirmatively while eliminating mortgage debt's negative drag on the same. Romney had only the utterly preposterous Republican nostrum of 'tax cuts' to offer, which ought at the very least have elicited a guffaw from the President. The President, for his part, had nearly nothing of his own to offer – least of all infrastructure renewal, which all seem to agree must be done on a huge scale. Instead both candidates virtually tripped over each other in seeking to appear to agree that we should eliminate that one form of debt which is now taking up slack left by private mortgage debt – viz. stimulative public debt.

The longer term challenge faced by our nation is its now three-decade-long history of stagnating real incomes among the steadily shrinking middle class, whose concomitant is steadily widening wealth and income inequality on a scale not seen in this nation since the fateful late 1920s. This trend, rooted (a) partly in ongoing global trade imbalances stemming partly from dysfunctional global currency arrangements and (b) partly in educational decline and a not unrelated privatization of education finance, is particularly ominous given what it has meant for other civilizations in eras past. It is also the root cause of the residential real estate bubble that brought us the aforementioned crisis and post-crisis mortgage debt deflation. Yet neither candidate had anything to say about it. This is particularly frustrating given the President's welcome turn to the subject, oft repeated, since his 'Teddy Roosevelt' speech in Kansas this time last year. And it is downright infuriating given the obvious ways in which Governor Romney's risible tax cut prescriptions are virtually guaranteed to exacerbate the dysfunctional trend – a fact to which the President had successfully and helpfully pointed over the weeks leading up to last night.