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.

It's true that Romney was also more aggressive than President Obama, but I think that much, and maybe most, of the ground he gained had little to do with relative aggression levels. It had to do with Romney paradoxically benefitting from the pre-debate "Romney as bumbler" framing. It was beyond Obama's realistic power to preserve that framing in the first debate, and it's beyond his power to restore it in the second debate. What he has to do, instead, is convert what replaced it--the new "sure footed Mitt" meme--into the "suspiciously slick Mitt" meme. And Obama won't do that by interrupting Romney or trying to out-alpha him. He'll do it by deftly raising substantive doubts about him.

The other piece of negative framing that Romney entered the first debate with is the "Romney as heartless plutocrat concerned only about his country club buddies" framing. That, of course, is the official Democratic framing--the framing that God knows how many negative ads have been devoted to. Obama's crucial failure to reinforce it in the first debate--his refusal to fully play the class warfare card--was a double whammy: it was a missed opportunity to pick up undecided voters, and it also triggered the aforementioned progressive revolt, giving critical mass to that doomsday post-debate media consensus. In the second debate, Obama can't again make the mistake of letting Romney wiggle out of the heartless plutocrat frame.

But that doesn't mean getting all "aggressive" and "energetic" in a very vivid sense. Obama should be reasonably assertive, sure, but a marked departure from his usual demeanor--a demeanor that even low-information voters know well, four years into the Obama presidency--will seem desperate.

Besides, Obama's usual demeanor--calmly professorial, nerdily expert, and accordingly authoritative--can be an asset if his goal is to reveal Mitt Romney as a traveling salesman who won't even tell you what the ingredients of his snake oil are (and who, anyway, changes his product line every few weeks as expediency dictates; if Obama doesn't utter the term "Etch-a-Sketch," you'll have to wonder about the quality of his debate prep.).

So Obama has to do two things on Tuesday: (1) convert the new "smooth, sure footed Mitt" meme into the "suspiciously slick Mitt" meme--get Romney's energetic, articulate self-assurance, which so wowed people in the first debate, to start creeping them out; and (2) drive home the "heartless plutocrat" meme in spades.

I wish I could say that all Obama has to do is follow this simple formula, but the fact is that, since this is an impromptu forum, he has to follow the formula with agility and creativity. He does in fact, as he would put it, have to have a good night. A very good night.