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Hold On, Obama Still Has 1 More Debate

President Obama at the town hall debate (Bloomberg/Getty Images)
President Obama at the town hall debate (Bloomberg/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Everyone seems to agree that President Obama had a pretty good week. His debate performance on Tuesday night was a vast improvement over his performance in the previous debate, but he still has a tough road ahead in regaining some of the ground the polls indicate he lost with voters. So below are the five things he needs to do in the next debate, and in the weeks to come, if he is serious about remaining in the White House.


1. Win Back Women
President Obama held a comfortable lead with women voters for much of the general election campaign. That changed after his lackluster debate performance, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney making notable gains among women voters.

With the president trailing Romney with men, the Obama campaign knows that it must win with women in order for the president to be re-elected. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that during the second debate, the president hit Romney particularly hard on his unwillingness to take a stand on the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which makes it easier for women to sue for equal pay. He also challenged the Republican's positions on reproductive rights and contraception access. The president had some help during the debate, with Romney's remarks about having "binders full of women" and making sure his female staff could get home to "cook dinner" taking on a life of their own in cyberspace.


However, the president can't just rely on his opponent to make mistakes and lose women voters. The president has to fight actively and aggressively to win them back, and that includes forcing the former governor, as often as possible, to specify his positions on issues that he is reluctant to broach, among them Lily Ledbetter, as well as abortion.

2. Mobilize Minorities
When Michael Jones, who is black, stood up at the presidential debate and asked, "Mr. President, I voted for you in 2008. What have you done or accomplished to earn my vote in 2012?" he spoke for a number of African Americans who are, frankly, disappointed with the progress our country has made in the years since it elected the first black president.

While the question did provide Obama with an opportunity to list some of his major accomplishments, it also spoke to a very real challenge the president faces in his re-election efforts. Minority voters played a crucial role in his election four years ago, with polls showing that they made the difference in states like North Carolina and Indiana. According to Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), head of the Congressional Black Caucus, if 2 percent to 5 percent of the black vote doesn't materialize, the president will be in jeopardy this election.

The president needs to focus on inspiring and mobilizing the Michael Joneses of the world, because even if they won't vote for his opponent, their not showing up and voting for Obama means the president will lose. He needs to give detailed examples of how he has helped black Americans — whether through the Affordable Care Act or by helping veterans (many of whom are young men of color) find jobs upon their return from Iraq (where the Obama administration led the troop withdrawal). If he doesn't make a convincing case to these voters, the president will lose.


3. Fight for a Few White Men
The president has a problem with men — specifically, white men. Poll after poll has shown that they remain his Achilles' heel this election cycle, with Obama so far being unable to close the distance in the lead Romney has consistently enjoyed with them. Newsflash: The president never will close the gap. He is simply never going to become the candidate of white guys, but he can become the candidate of a few of them.

As I wrote during the Democratic National Convention, President Obama's consistent references to the auto bailout certainly helped with this demographic, but in the first debate, Romney creamed him with his constant attacks on the president's failure to create enough jobs. The president clearly was worried that whatever ground he gained during the convention, he had lost in the first debate, because his opening response in the second debate mentioned Romney's willingness to let "Detroit go bankrupt" — a blatant appeal to auto-plant employees, many of them working-class white males.


The president must keep appealing to them, and while he doesn't need to woo all of them, he needs to woo enough of them to keep his campaign alive. That means a lot more mentions of the auto bailout and the manufacturing jobs that have been created during his first term. It also means inspiring unions, many of whose members remain largely white and male, to mobilize for him on Election Day.

4. Own Foreign Policy
Polls have shown that Americans have so far expressed greater confidence in the president's leadership on foreign policy issues than with Romney's. But the president and his administration have faced heightened attacks regarding their handling of the events leading up to the diplomatic tragedy in Libya. The president and his challenger's exchange over that crisis resulted in one of the second presidential debate's tensest exchanges, with even moderator Candy Crowley feeling compelled to, controversially, weigh in.


Though conventional wisdom had been that the economy would remain the defining issue of this election, recent news of a planned terror attack targeting the Federal Reserve Bank — and potentially the president — has placed the war on terror front and center within the media and in the minds of Americans. This is just in time for the next debate, which happens to focus on — you guessed it — foreign policy.

Between the troop withdrawal in Iraq and the killing of Osama bin Laden, the president is much less vulnerable on his record on foreign affairs than on domestic policy, but he needs to do more than just recite a laundry list of accomplishments in the next debate. He needs to be seen as confident, tough and protective, yet presidential. He succeeded when discussing Libya in the second debate. He needs to go even further in this next one, because if he is seen as wavering or weak — at all — it will allow Romney a small opening, and that's all he really needs.


5. Re-Energize Young Voters
Two of the most memorable questions posed during the town hall debate of undecided voters came from younger voters: the first question from a college student concerned about finding postgraduation employment, and the other from a young woman concerned about fair pay for women. They were indicative of how different the 2012 Obama campaign is from the 2008 Obama campaign.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama dominated with younger voters. Now, four years later, many — not just the two posing questions in the town hall — have questions about his leadership. Next to people of color, young people played the greatest role in putting President Obama in office. If he doesn't find a way to reach them in the next few weeks, he will not stay there.


Obama therefore needs to tailor messages that speak directly to them and outline what they will personally lose if he is no longer president. A good place to start may be mentioning how many of them currently remain on their parents' insurance as young adults, thanks to Obamacare. 

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter

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