Now It’s Obama’s Turn to Win the Debate at Hofstra University

Michael Tomasky on what the president needs to do to win on Tuesday night in New York.

Okay, Joe Biden did his part. Now, or soon, it’s Barack Obama’s turn again. If he flubs this like last time, this race is probably over. If he manages a draw, he’ll stay what he is now, the narrow favorite whose rickety lead is based chiefly on an edge in Ohio that doesn’t feel all that solid, and both sides will be sweating bullets right through election night. He has to win. And frankly, there’s reason to wonder whether he can. He’ll need to be on his toes on taxes and Medicare and health care, sure. But before all that, I hope someone is reminding him that he needs to remember what he’s fighting for.

What Biden did well Thursday was exactly that. Whether his lines were great or whether he interrupted too much, the viewer came away with the unmistakable sense that he was on that stage to defend a view of the world and a vision for the country. He wasn’t up there for his own sake alone. He was fighting for some ideas. This was utterly absent from Obama’s performance. I don’t know how much of the drop-off in Obama’s support after the first debate came because of dispirited Democrats, but I would bet that it was a pretty decent chunk.

Obama does have this habit of drifting in and out that precedes the debate. This sense that he is somehow powerless against the prevailing winds, has recurred throughout Obama’s presidency. I was totally mystified in the run-up to the 2010 elections, for example. Everyone knew a tidal wave was coming. The question was how big. Some effort and fight on the Democratic side might have contained some of the damage. But Obama just largely let it happen.

Similar thing with the debt ceiling fight last year. As soon as the Republicans made it known, early in the year, that they were going to tie an increase in the debt limit to their various demands, I honestly expected to see Obama say, “Hey, wait a minute, this has never happened in the history of the country.” But he put up no fight at all. It was really mystifying.

Then he got a little momentum, around that Kansas speech late last year, but he didn’t really follow through on it. Themes partially developed in that speech about middle-class economics were never fully developed, and he just kinda dropped it, or returned to it spottily. He didn’t seem to attempt to keep pressure on the Republicans.

Maybe Maureen Dowd is right that Obama always pulls back when he’s got an opponent on the ropes and gives him another shot before coming back to finish him off. If that’s the explanation, or something like that, then Obama has it in him to rally himself Tuesday.

There’s a less reassuring possibility, which is that Obama just isn’t into the kind of knife-fight he may need to get involved in to win this thing. He didn’t really have to in 2008. John McCain wasn’t a good debater. He made a fool of himself with that suspended campaign business. And he chose a vice-presidential nominee who drove independents into Obama’s arms. And mainly, the fact that the collapse happened under the Republicans made voters unusually ready to hand the White House over to the Democrats. He had to fight against Hillary, I suppose, and he did that very well in Iowa, and the next month in Wisconsin. By then he basically had it locked up and just had to avoid screwing it up. He almost managed to blow it (Rev. Wright, the “clinging to their guns” comment) but managed to pull it out.

I hope that someone can say to him, “Mr. President, 70 million or more Americans are counting on you. They voted for you, they’re planning on voting for you again, and they want you to fight for them. If you lose, you let them down horribly—and you damage their lives. They’re 47 percenters, a lot of these folks. They need you. If the other side gets in, you’ll be fine, but they’re screwed.”

Obama put himself in the position of being the one person in the country all these people depend on. So he has to be their defender. And this is how I’d hope he spends his preparation time—not thinking about how he can look smarter than Romney or score this or that point, but how he can communicate to middle-class people that he’s eager to fight to protect their interests, and why his ideas will do that and his opponent’s won’t.

If that’s his mindset this week, we won’t give any recondite exegeses about the workings of the Independent Payment Review Board. He won’t just shrug and say, nah, no difference between me and the other guy on Social Security. He’ll treat every question and exchange as an opportunity to advance his vision and knock down Romney’s.

I remember in 2008 he used to say, “This isn’t about me, it’s about you.” Well, now that’s really true, and everything is on the line.