Why Obama's in This Hole and How He Can Get Out

A small but troubling sign that President Obama doesn't have a sound game plan going into his second debate came a few days ago, roughly a week after the first debate. Having correctly assessed that there was no point in pretending he had emerged from the first debate triumphant, Obama decided to concede defeat and go with the "good night/bad night" explanation. He said , "Governor Romney had a good night. I had a bad night."

Obama thus broke the cardinal rule of pre-debate propaganda: he raised expectations for the second debate, leading people to anticipate a sharply reversed outcome. Yet there's no reason to expect a sharply reversed outcome, because the truth is that Mitt Romney is at least as good in these kinds of situations as Obama. So the goal should have been to prepare people to judge Romney harshly even if he is once again smooth as silk. Here's what would have been a better line:

"Well, I didn't have my best night, but I'll tell you, I'm not as surprised as some people seem to be that Mitt Romney turned in an impressive performance. Nobody ever said the guy was stupid. And nobody ever said he wasn't slick. You don't spend years as the chief salesman for Bain Capital without developing a smooth delivery. The problem is what the smooth delivery is concealing--such as tax cuts for the rich that would be paid for by the rest of Americans in ways Romney refuses to disclose."

Another troubling sign, as Obama heads into his second debate, is how refreshing the phrase above--"tax cuts for the rich"--would sound coming off of his lips. In his first debate, for reasons I find mystifying, Obama rarely referred to the Romney tax cuts' disproportionate benefits to the affluent. He just kept complaining about a "$5 trillion tax cut"--as if Americans consider tax cuts in themselves a bad thing! ("$5 trillion?" they're thinking. "Why only $5 trillion?")

This--Obama's seemingly congenital reluctance to wholeheartedly play the class warfare card, and his related reluctance to go for the jugular--is one of the things that drove his progressive base nuts during that first debate. And it's a big reason that the debate was such a debacle. The full-throated exasperation of progressive pundits merged with the predictable spin of conservative pundits and the overblown verdict of nonpartisan analysts (who had gone into the debate with unduly high expectations for Obama) to create a juggernaut media consensus that rolled on for days, sending Obama's poll numbers into a free fall that shows no clear signs of having ended.

And now Obama is headed into the second debate getting what strikes me as some pretty bad advice. A headline on the homepage of Monday's Washington Post read, "At second debate, pressures's on Obama to show some fight." And the Obama campaign has promised that, yes, this time the president will be "aggressive" and "more energetic." But I think following this game plan very literally could be a mistake. To see why, it helps to take a closer look at what exactly went wrong in the first debate.

Romney went into that debate (as Molly Ball recently noted) with an image as kind of a bumbling ne'er-do-well. You wouldn't have predicted a year ago he'd have that reputation, but then, beginning this summer, he had a few gaffes and other mishaps, and before you knew it everyone thought of him as the kind of guy who can't set foot in London without antagonizing the entire British populace. So Romney went into the first debate able to gain real ground by just looking competent and sure footed, and he succeeded.

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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