Mitt Romney won the first debate because he projected confidence with difficult policy details. Too often, Obama relied on rhetoric bolstering his opponent’s negative image; on Medicare, he launched into a defense of people like his grandmother, who are not freeloaders — the implication being, of course, that Romney thinks they are. Obama was right to think that projecting yourself as the man who can get the job done is only the tip of the iceberg. The other side of the coin is projecting yourself as the man who will keep the average American’s interests at heart. Luckily for Obama, his strength on that second count will shine through more easily in the town hall format of Tuesday night’s debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. at 9pm..
We need look no further than Bill Clinton’s performance in the 1992 town hall debate to see what Obama should shoot for. When a woman asked both candidates how the recession had affected them, Clinton, channeling just the kind of frustration recession-time voters are filled with, focused on his personal relationships with people facing tough times. “When the businesses go bankrupt, I know them,” he said, eyes narrowed for emphasis. He did not just seem like the man who had the skills to fix the recession; he seemed like a man who felt voters’ anger and dismay as his own. His answer alone seemed an attempt to defend them.
The town hall debate allows candidates to tap into these intimate feelings, and this is exactly what Obama needs to do Tuesday night. During tough economic times, an ease with pulling that off can promise victory at the polls, as Clinton proved twenty years ago. While Romney has no problem reading off a five-point plan, he has had trouble all throughout the election connecting with voters on a personal level. Rather than come out swinging, which is what a lot of Democrats are hoping to see after his listlessness two weeks ago, Obama needs to stick with his strengths, which happen to be Romney’s weaknesses.
Obama needs to highlight his commitment to the American people. He needs to convince us, which he utterly failed at in the first debate, that he feels these problems as urgently and intensely as Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are conveying in their campaign. He needs to express anger at the power struggles in Washington that are preventing progress: the deadlock in Congress that led to the debt ceiling fiasco and the languishing of his jobs act, the failure to embrace ‘Obamacare,’ despite the fact that it was originally drawn up by the conservative Heritage Foundation just because it was embraced by the president Republicans so mistrust and perhaps even revile. He has to remind the American people of the importance of standing with him against a greater foe than Romney, and he has to do it with an enthusiasm and passion that has been lacking in his re-election campaign thus far. He needs to stop trying to direct resentment at Romney, and start trying to direct it toward the irresponsible behavior that impeded progress throughout his presidency.
Obama’s performance was so devastating in the first debate because it highlighted a huge hole in his campaign's front and center: he’s been so focused on preventing a Romney success that he’s forgotten to tell us why he deserves a second term. Even the slogan ‘Forward’ sounds too half-hearted — it seems to say, “Well, we’re already here, might as well keep going.” Saying you should be elected for a second term just by virtue of having one term under your belt betrays a lack of enthusiasm that can be, and indeed has been, exploited by the opponent.
Obama’s strength in 2008 rested in how he heard the exasperation and frustrations of the American people and how he tapped into it. It’s harder to be on the voters’ side of these frustrations when you’re already president — much harder — but it can be done. And if Barack Obama fails to convince us of this energy and readiness to solve our problems tomorrow night, voters will — and probably should — turn to someone else.