Second Presidential Debate: Obama Must Restore Hope, Not Attack Mitt Romney


President Obama has likely spent the past week and a half hurling abuse at aides, staffers, pages, Secret Service personnel, janitors, and maybe a few Air Force One mirrors, eager to answer his supporters’ unanimous cry to be aggressive with Mitt Romney at Tuesday night's debate. . On October 3rd, in the first of three debates, Obama silently fixated on his own podium as his opponent repeatedly exposed himself and his platform to challenges that never came. When it was Obama’s turn to speak, he often seemed like someone who hadn’t yet considered what a counter to Romney even would have been. The social-mediasphere exploded in complaint even before the debate was over. So ubiquitous was the charge that he lacked aggression that by the eve of the second debate, Obama had reportedly bivouacked himself inside a Virginia resort to refine his plan of attack — a stark contrast to his easy comfort going into the first meeting. No doubt his supporters yearn to see a more rootin’ tootin’ performance out of him at Hofstra, but if the president is spending his time learning only aggression, he will have made a mistake. What Obama must achieve in the second debate has little to do with hammering Romney or delivering zingers and everything to do with rekindling the grandiose passion that he used to invoke effortlessly.

“No-drama Obama” has been an apt nickname for the president since he first became a national figure six years ago. Much has been written about Obama’s aversion to conflict and how it translated into a first term that left many of his supporters frustrated. Given what the Democrats have endured at the hands of their president’s non-confrontation, it was surprising to see his base shocked with his debate performance. To the contrary, it would have been unreasonable to expect Obama to come out swinging. Nor should he focus on that now: he’s not used to it, and he’s probably not very good at it. Moreover, the president did not get trampled as badly as the ensuing furor would have indicated. Obama doesn’t need a vast reconsidering of his campaign or his platform in order to seem invigorated. The president’s chief flaw in Denver was revealing how downtrodden he has become over his presidency’s first four years. His creased, downward-pointed face seemed to expose the trauma of a professor who wandered into a madhouse and had only another fraught term to fight for. This directly undermined the Obama that the nation elected: not a policy wonk, but a generation-defining usher of new ideas. Big ideas.

The momentum that has taken Romney into a virtual dead heat going into tonight’s debate, according to RealClearPolitics, was born of the single most effective tactic employed by Barack Obama in 2008: the allure of a newcomer fighting for a chance to enact a sweeping vision of government. The country has watched Obama grow up these past four years, and no doubt he finds it difficult to stir the same enthusiasm for change as when he was a bona fide outsider. But if he is to remain president, he needs to recapture the “hopey-changey thing,” as Sarah Palin once derided it, and he needs to ride it in these last two debates.

On September 20, Obama’s campaign reached a nadir of sorts. Even though FiveThirtyEight put his chances of winning the election that day at 76%, odds that proceeded to increase in his favor for the next week, it was then that the president told a voter forum that “you can’t change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside.” It was the polar opposite of his message from 2008 and Romney’s today. The comment negated every reason Obama had offered as to why a youthful freshman senator was qualified for the job. If Obama is to win enough of the image war to come out of tonight’s debate respectably, he must avoid sounding jaded. He should also avoid attempting outright attacks on Romney, because unlike old-school political brawlers like Joe “My Friend” Biden or Bill Clinton, Obama is not especially adept on offense. What would truly boost him and his campaign is a return to the version of himself that voters still remember fondly. If we must pick winners and losers from these debates, then Obama lost the first because he let Mitt Romney beat him at his own game. This happened to some degree by failing to challenge the challenger, but mostly by failing to counter Romney’s grand vision of government with one of his own. Obama will be best served tonight not by trying to manufacture an aggressive instinct, but by recapturing his signature ability to convey hope.