What Obama Doesn't Get About Debates

(The Root) — It's crunch time for President Barack Obama's campaign — and his presidency. One more bad debate on Tuesday night and he'll have done serious damage to his 2012 re-election prospects and possibly his presidential legacy.

As a result of his listless performance in the first debate against opponent Mitt Romney, the president is now locked in a statistical dead heat — 48 to 46 percent — in the Gallup daily tracking poll, and his 51 to 46 percent lead in Sunday's PPP Poll in the crucial swing state of Ohio is all that's left of the firewall between Obama and his challenger.



Because Obama didn't just lose in that first debate; as the Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan writes, "he forfeited it." He'll almost certainly show up to the second debate at Hofstra University better rested and better prepared — and the town hall-style format probably suits him better than the dueling-podium format — but unless Obama throws some major tweaks into his debate style, he risks another lackluster performance.


Here's what he needs to do:

Be Energetic, Not Aggressive

There's been a lot of chatter about whether Obama can afford to get in Romney's face and risk being perceived as an angry black man. But you don't even need that analysis, because Obama doesn't need to be aggressive. The first time the president asked the first lady out, he wasn't aggressive; he just took Chris Rock's advice and made eye contact, put some bass in his voice and let her know what he was about. So if the debate is a date with voters, that's what he should be doing now.

Stop Fact-Checking Romney

On Sunday, strategist Donna Brazile said what should have been obvious to Team Obama all along: "Stop trying to fact-check" Romney.


Romney's flip-flopped every major issue — health care, abortion, stimulus, bailouts and immigration — but anyone who cares already knows this. So when Obama stands onstage offering detailed rebuttals to Romney's ever-evolving policy positions, he's wasting his own time. Calling Romney out is the pundits' job — his job is making the case for his own re-election, not to be a one-man truth squad.

Run on His Record

And that positive case is sitting there, waiting for Obama to make it. Foreclosures are at a five-year low. Unemployment is down to 7.8 percent. The stock market doubled from a March 2009 low of 6,626 to Friday's close of 13,328. Obama successfully bailed out the American auto industry, repealed "Don't ask, don't tell" and passed universal health coverage legislation based on the plan Romney implemented as Massachusetts governor.


Yes, Obama has to own his failures, too — he's still running trillion-dollar budget deficits — but running from his record clearly isn't working. He should be running with it.

Keep His Eyes on the Prize

Plus, Obama has to remember that his goal isn't winning the debate; it's winning the election. If his campaign were the Harvard Debate Society, it'd be his job to rebut every last one of Romney's points. But instead of counterpunching, Obama has to just accept that he's going to hear some things he doesn't like and then try to stay above the fray. His goal is re-election, not winning a debate trophy.


Remember He's the President

But more than anything else, Obama needs to look in the mirror and realize that the young, smiling, hope-and-change guy from Honolulu isn't there anymore. Standing in his place is the gray-haired leader of the free world — the guy whose job it is to send American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to fight, and sometimes die, for their country. Romney's goal in life is to be that guy.


If Obama wants to earn another four years, he has two debates to remind voters why they made him that guy in the first place, and that it's the guy he still wants to be.

David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root and blogs for the New York Daily News' "The Rumble." Follow him on Twitter.


David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter

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