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How Obama Can Prosper During Debate No. 2

How Obama Can Prosper During Debate No. 2

By Alexis Simendinger - October 16, 2012


President Obama has heard plenty of commentary about what he should have done during his Denver debate with Mitt Romney, and what he should try to accomplish during his rematch Tuesday night at Hofstra University.

Based on the president's habits in past town-hall-style sessions, the analyses of pollsters and focus groups who watched the Denver face-off, and the challenges he faces before Nov. 6, here are the tips that seem to make good sense.

First, forget about Romney. Not literally, but atmospherically. It’s October, not June, and the president should shore up his own vulnerabilities rather than spend the debate stalking his opponent. This advice is the exact opposite of what Obama’s base of supporters say he should do after his low-wattage performance on Oct. 3, but they’re not going to vote for Romney and, chances are, they’re not staying home on Election Day either. So if some persuadable Americans are still uncomfortable with the thought of another four years of Obama’s leadership, it’s not because they’ve all swooned for Romney. The president still has openings to sell himself without referencing the dangerous alternatives he sees in Romney. A town-hall format is ripe for those talents.

Democratic pollster Fred Yang, a partner with Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, said after the Denver debate that Obama “needs to close the deal. It’s not about Mitt Romney anymore. . . . It’s about Barack Obama.” He said voters want information from Obama and his campaign that instills confidence.

“As we head into November, their No. 1 imperative is to answer the question ‘What will the next four years be like?’ And I think when they answer that question for the American people . . . that’s when he will win the election,” Yang said.

Second, paint a national picture of economic renewal in the next year or two. Where will the country be, exactly? Can Obama be seen as the forceful outsider who marches into a desperado town called “Congress” and straightens the place out? Many voters don’t seem to see Obama in that role, and part of the problem is his campaign’s focus on blame and excuses. (He has complained that times were tough; he inherited big problems; White House communications were rocky; Republicans were uncooperative; he concedes he made some mistakes.) The Obama team insists the president and the vice president must lay out their vision for the future during each debate, but it is Romney who talks about a five-point plan, and polls show voters have retained that messaging.

Third, “no-drama Obama” flopped in Denver because he seemed to lack a pulse. In a town-hall setting with citizen questioners, the president cannot rely on his well-worn stump speech retort about 18 administration tax cuts for small businesses when a Long Island small business owner -- and there will surely be one -- stands up to vent about health insurance costs, regulations and federal cluelessness. Obama, the wonk, has to listen to the people with something on their minds, ask them some friendly questions in return, and emote about their situations, whatever they may be. It’s the essence of succeeding in a town-hall format.

Someone on the president’s debate prep team should have reviewed the highlight reel from Obama’s August 2011 bus trip through three Midwestern states when his job approval numbers were in the basement and he invited real people to ask him questions. In Minnesota, he was both pitch perfect at times and tone deaf at others. When a woman told the president her son was just back from Afghanistan, he hugged her and asked, “Is he all right?” That spontaneous embrace tipped the woman to tears, and he hugged her a second time. “We are so grateful,” the commander-in-chief assured her.

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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