Michael Tomasky on the Eight Things Obama Needs To Do in the Debate

The stakes on Tuesday night are enormous. Michael Tomasky lays out the president’s surest path to victory.

Brendan Smialowski, AFP / Getty Images

So here we are. Let’s get right to it. Here are Barack Obama’s eight tasks tonight:

Be a fighter for beliefs. I wrote this already, but it needs to be on this list. Obama must communicate that he wants to spend four more years fighting for the things he believes in and the people he represents.

Link Romney to Bush on policy. Absolutely crucial. This would sound something like: “Friends, let’s look over a little recent history. In 2001 President Bush came into office saying he was going to cut taxes and decrease regulations on Wall Street and the banks, and the economy would go gangbusters. Well, he did that, and we saw what happened—record deficits and the biggest economic crisis in 80 years.

“I’ve spent the last four years digging us out of this ditch. No help from the other side, mind you. But I have, and now we’re finally getting somewhere positive—the lowest unemployment rate in four years, the highest consumer confidence in five.

“And along comes my opponent here, and what’s he say? He wants to cut taxes and repeal regulations on Wall Street and the banks. Exactly the policies that created the crisis in the first place. Friends, I know your memories aren’t that short. They’re gonna take us right back to where we were.”

We are now at a point where the only people who even remember this and are making the connection between Bush policies and Romney proposals are liberal political junkies, which isn’t much of the population. Obama needs to remind swing voters of what happened.

Sink his chops into Romney’s tax plan. Be ready to rebut the bogus six studies. Play offense about math. Demonstrate calmly and authoritatively that there aren’t nearly enough deductions for rich people to offset lowering their taxes by one fifth. That is so not too wonky or complicated.

Be ready for a surprise. I think I wrote this last week, or if I didn’t I meant to. But Matt Miller of The Washington Post did. Romney is shameless enough to say something tonight like he now supports higher taxes for the rich, after the economy has regained its footing.

Obama has to be ready for that or another surprise. If it’s that one, I think Obama’s best response is probably not even to engage on the level of policy, but just to level him with something like, “Boy, you’ll just say anything now, won’t you? For a year and half, as long as he was seeking Republican votes, this guy went around and bragged out how much he was cutting taxes. And now that he wants everybody’s vote, suddenly he’s a tax raiser!” Et cetera.

In other words, I am conceding that that would be a smart thing for Romney to do, and that Obama’s policy answers to it are limited. As long as the people who despise tax increases would let him get away with this—and they would, for now—Obama would be a little boxed in. That’s where the mot juste comes in handy. Ding him for saying anything. Make the subject not what taxes the rich pay, but that Romney has no core.

Defend Obamacare with human stories, and rebut Romney on preexisting conditions. Please, no Independent Payment Advisory Board lectures. Tell the stories of Americans, by name, now already benefiting from provisions of the law.

And do not let Romney say that he covers preexisting conditions. He covers them only for people who have had continuous insurance coverage, which excludes a lot of people—indeed, it excludes the very people who’ve been thrown off their plans because of their illness.

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Have a second-term agenda, and make sure it has some surprises of its own. Some of this agenda can be aimed at constituencies (immigration reform, say). But he should throw in something no one expects to hear, something that will throw Romney off guard. Maybe something about more aggressive natural-gas permitting in a second term. Probably needs to be a little bigger than that. But three things on that order would do the trick.

Point being, Obama needs not only to be on the lookout for the possibility that Romney is going to try to nick a piece of his agenda (tax increases for the rich). He should nick a piece of Mitt’s.

Emphasize gender issues. If this USAToday poll is right, and Obama and Romney are tied in swing states, that is big trouble for Obama. Abortion. Pay equity. Contraception. Planned Parenthood. The Supreme Court. The whole schmear.

Find a way to reintroduce the plutocrat meme. Everyone has forgotten about that Mitt. Seems a good time to remind people. Followed the Sensata story? That may be one way in.

One must assume Romney will have answers on all these things. This is a chess match where Obama needs to think three moves ahead. If I bring up A, he’s gonna say B, so I say C. No, not enough! That’s only two moves. Romney will know that C is coming—it’ll be the expected rebuttal. So Romney will then say D. And Obama needs to deliver a good E. That E is where this is going to be won or lost.