October 16, 2012
President Obama is just hours away from squaring off with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and the overarching question is whether he can make amends for his sorry, lackluster performance in Denver and undercut the surging Romney campaign.
Few doubt that we will see a far more aggressive and energized president than the one who showed up for the first debate two weeks ago. Obama has been pummeled by his critics for a lack of serious preparation for the first debate, and Vice President Joe Biden – for all his odd expressions and cackling – showed the president how to go after an opponent in his 90-minute debate with Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan last Thursday.
Romney appears to be brimming with confidence after his widely acclaimed performance two weeks ago, and should be on his game again tonight in a scheduled 90-minute town hall style debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
It’s not a stretch to say that tonight will be a turning point in the campaign, and that with only three weeks left before Election Day, Obama can ill afford to have another bad debate night.
Cable television news shows and the Internet are awash with predictions and advice for the candidates heading into the debate, which will be moderated by CNN’s Candy Crowley. Here is what 16 policy and political experts had to say to The Fiscal Times about the critical encounter:
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum and former CBO director - Let the candidates talk. To date, it has been all about setting expectations for the second presidential debate. President Obama’s advisers have been out in full force raising the stakes on tonight’s town hall style debate. The president’s greatest challenge is to live up to his campaign slogan and focus the debate on the future.
I do not expect he will disappoint again. On the heels of his weak first debate, and what most considered a draw in the vice presidential debate, tonight is too important for the president to not show up.
President Obama will be ready to outline his vision and explain clearly, and strongly, why and how it contrasts with Gov. Romney’s principles. He will employ his rhetorical skills to paint his vision for the future of the country. And you can expect he will press Gov. Romney for details on his plans. The ads that the Obama campaign released following the first debate point to a number of what the Obama campaign described as lies. President Obama is likely to hit on these points and demand answers. He will continue the task begun by Vice President Biden last week in his debate against Congressman Ryan, but Mr. Obama will do so with much more tact.
Like the president, Romney has to provide a vision – indeed he must be convincing that he has a single, unchanging vision for the country.
Gov. Romney has high expectations to meet as well, coming off a successful first debate performance. He has to keep the momentum going and be prepared to debate a different Obama than he met two weeks ago. His biggest challenge is to answer the questions the Obama campaign raised in their ads following the first debate. Like the president, he has to provide a vision – indeed he must be convincing that he has a single, unchanging vision for the country.
The town hall style presents an interesting dynamic, one in which President Obama will likely excel. In 2008 he proved to be very comfortable in this environment, not to mention there are far worse places for President Obama to hold a town hall than New York State. It might not match the Thrilla in Manila, but one can surely expect a much more lively discussion tonight than we had two weeks ago.
Drew Altman, president and CEO, Kaiser Family Foundation - From a health care policy perspective, the issue that can still move votes as the campaign comes down to the wire is Medicare. Seniors trust the president and Gov. Romney about equally on Medicare, but they are very leery about a premium support plan, creating an opening for the president unless Romney reassures them about his plan. Despite its history as a Democratic issue, right now Medicare is a jump ball.
Stan Collender, managing director of Qorvis Communications and economics blogger –
- Defend his record on the fiscal policy without getting in the weeds.
- Deflect any criticism about the deficit so that the GOP is understood to be at least as responsible.
- Talk about the economic/budget of the Bush years without looking like he’s just blaming someone else.
- Opportunity: Talk about Romney/Ryan as budget extremists who, like Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43, will make the situation much worse.
- Keep the momentum going from the first debate.
- Put the president on the defensive as far as the economy and budget are concerned without making himself/GOP vulnerable.
- Stay on the offensive when it comes to the economy: If he’s explaining his proposals, he’ll be losing.
Robert D. Reischauer, former director, Congressional Budget Office - Romney has to convince voters that the first debate wasn’t a fluke: Obama has to prove that it was. Romney can’t make a big “misspeak” – 47 percent, back and forth on abortion, etc. Obama has to look awake and zing Romney on a few of his inconsistencies to get the juices flowing in the D base.
Obama has to point out that a vote for Romney is the modern equivalent of buying a pig in a poke without engaging in ridicule.
Romney has to be firm/executive like, even business-man aggressive, yet respectful of the president and presidency. Obama has to explain how Romney is a political chameleon, his policies are unworkable, and are too lacking in detail to represent real policy proposals – but he can’t engage in ridicule. He has to point out that a vote for Romney is the modern equivalent of buying a pig in a poke without engaging in ridicule. Obama has to make it look like he has a credible solution to the deficit problem without revealing too much of what sacrifice would have to be involved.
After the first debate, Romney has the Republican base firmly on his hook so he can tack to the center as he has done – no tax increase on the middle class, no guarantee of a tax reductions (relative to current policy) on the rich (lower rates and lower deductions).
Scott Lilly, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress - I think President Obama has to demonstrate that he is willing to participate in the process and respond to his opponent’s arguments. He needs to be critical of Gov. Romney’s policy proposals while not being shrill or dismissive of Romney as a person. He needs to make the public forget about the guy who showed up last time wearing his name tag.
Larry Sabato, University of Virginia political scientist-
What Obama has to do:
- Show a pulse, thereby contrasting with his approach in Denver. Energy matters if you expect your base to be enthused.
- Take the fight to Romney, which is tough because of the town hall format. The audience bristles when a candidate gets too negative.
- Suggest a second term agenda without getting too specific; leave people with the impression you’ve said something revealing about what you want to do.
What Romney has to do:
- Keep the pressure on Obama by weaving in his failures, without going too far in the town hall format.
- Continue to work on likability by relating individually to the questioners. Mr. Cool has to warm up a bit and show he cares, without contradicting his platform.
- Whenever possible, present himself as “Mr. Fixit” on the economy. It’s credible, and he doesn’t have to bash Obama. Everyone wil get the contrast without his overdoing it.
Rem Rieder, editor, American Journalism Review - The challenge for President Obama is immense. He's coming off of a disastrous performance in which he frittered away his lead and allowed Mitt Romney to bury the negative image of him that the Obama campaign had spent so much time and money building. Obama has to make a case for why he deserves a second term. He needs to take advantage of opportunities to skewer Romney, something he failed to do in the first debate. But he also needs to establish his own second-term agenda.
Romney's challenge is to keep up the momentum of the last debate. He needs to be the reasonable, moderate-sounding Romney as opposed to the very conservative version he has been presenting all year, although that is not without risks. And in a town hall setting, he needs to show that he can relate to regular people, something that has hardly been a strength in the past.
Ron Bonjean, Washington Republican political strategist - Tonight's debate between President Obama and Gov. Romney means everything. The face off has a great potential to continue the momentum Romney generated from the last debate and erase Obama's lead just weeks before the election.
President Obama is likely going to come out swinging against Romney to make up for the lackluster performance two weeks ago. If Romney can somehow draw Obama out into overdoing his attacks, it could make the President look desperate.
Romney has the opportunity to put Obama on defense over his record and continue to create a contrast over two visions for leading the future. For example, if he can force Obama to add to the spider web of explanations of how the Administration handled the Benghazi attack, then it could create more political headaches and negative coverage.
At the same time, Romney must find ways to relate to the audience who will be asking tough questions about the economy. When the governor said in the last debate, "There are people hurting out there," it was one of the first times that millions of people watching had any type of emotional connection to him. Romney will have to do everything possible to relate to the problems of middle class Americans without it looking canned or robotic.
Eugene Steuerle, economist and fellow at the Urban Institute -
- I think both of them are trapped by a system that has so overpromised (relative to anything in our history) that they really don’t know what to do. Campaigns are all about promising to pay more, tax less, or at least exempt most voters from helping to pay anything to get our house in order. Romney’s additional tax cuts perhaps put him in a bigger bind, but the president doesn’t offer any way out. That means that the next president must reframe the debate in a broad way that glances over implicit or explicit contradictions from what he offers in the campaign.
If the candidates were totally honest on any of these issues, the other one would promise to protect us more from doing what we have to do and likely win the election
- On Medicare, both are promising to either pare back payments or convert to vouchers, yet not “cut benefits.” Both proposals entail a cut in benefits, no matter how efficient or worthwhile it might be.
- On the elderly more generally, they both promise to exempt those over 55 or 60 from helping get our fiscal house in order when those are the very groups that have benefitted most from our huge deficits (not paying our bills), have half the wealth in society, through early retirement are helping to prolong the recession, and came through the recession better than almost any age group.
As for the debate, they both will skirt over these issues, so it may be more style than substance as to who wins the debate. In fairness, if they were totally honest on any of these issues, the other one would promise to protect us more from doing what we have to do and likely win the election.
Ethan Pollack, senior policy analyst, Economic Policy Institute - Obama's biggest challenge is to reclaim the label of change. At the last debate he really came across as the status quo, while Romney came across as a change agent. Obama must do a better job of linking Romney to past failed policies (i.e., Bush) and presenting a coherent second-term agenda. The agenda doesn’t need to be ambitious, but Obama just needs to sound excited when talking about it.
Romney needs to build on his momentum by making few mistakes (i.e., no $10,000 bets) and continuing his relentless attacks on Obama while still sounding more disappointed than angry.
John Zogby, Republican pollster - Obama needs to tell his story. It has been painful but the American people have more confidence, unemployment is going down, the nation is secure, and he needs four years more to move forward because he had to spend the first four years in relief and recovery. He needs to remind voters that agree or disagree with him that he present a core of values and is consistent. He needs to use that to set the table so that he can pummel Romney with the question: Who are you, Mr. Romney? Then point out the inconsistency.
Romney has to reprise his persona from the first debate: reasonable, humane, a problem-solver and consensus-builder. Does he change positions? Yes, but never his core.
Kirk Victor, freelance journalist - A challenge for Obama, as he corrects for his disastrous performance, is not to "over-correct." You'll recall that is what Al Gore did in each of his debates against George W. Bush and he seemed to be three different people.
His well-known cool persona – "No Drama Obama" – is not exactly right for a town hall. He needs to show some passion and not be aloof
Stylistically, he needs to be warmer: He can't be looking down all the time and making no eye contact with Romney. And sneers are out. His well-known cool persona, "No Drama Obama," is not exactly right for a town hall. He needs to show some passion and not be aloof.
All Romney needs to do, really, is to keep doing what he did in the last debate. If he is doing well, he might just get under Obama's skin, which would not be a bad outcome for Romney at all.
Michael D. Tanner, Cato Institute senior fellow - Both President Obama and Mitt Romney face a similar challenge, to convince voters to vote for them rather than against the other guy. That requires them to put forward an actual agenda for the next four years.
Edward L. Andrews, freelance journalist - Obama came dangerously close in the last debate to persuading the country that he doesn't really want another term. It was unforgivable that he let Gov. Romney get away with a long series of evasions and outright whoppers – about green-energy subsidies, middle-class tax cuts, his plans for Medicare and even about regulation ("We have to have regulation!" Romney declared with a straight face, as if he hasn't been preaching the opposite for the past four years).
In truth, the president's platform specifics aren't all that inspiring. He doesn't have a vigorous plan to deal with either unemployment or the deficit.
The president isn't about to repeat those fumbles on Tuesday. But his much tougher challenge will be to make a convincing case that he stands for something – something important and inspiring and credible. Just as it wasn't enough for Mitt Romney to simply attack the president, it isn't enough for Obama to run on the basis of Romney's inconsistencies or the dangers posed by right-wing zealots. In truth, the president's platform specifics aren't all that inspiring. He doesn't have a vigorous plan to deal with either unemployment or the deficit.
Mitt Romney's challenge is very different. He should and probably is assuming that the president will highlight all the gaping inconsistencies in his platform. But what Romney really needs to do is come out with one or two courageous and concrete big ideas. He could, for example, come out with a ringing pledge to hammer out some sort of deficit-reduction agreement along the lines of Simpson-Bowles – and explicitly put tax increases on the table.
A little guts could go a long way.
George Hager, editorial writer, USA Today - Obama has to offer a more forceful explanation for what another four years of his policies would do that Romney's won't – and promising to hire another 100,000 teachers sounds tone deaf when he's being hammered for his spending policies.
From a completely non-substantive point of view, he has to stop saying "uh" so much – Romney sounded more persuasive simply because his answers flowed while Obama's were halting. Romney's job is easier – he just has to do as well as he did last time. He didn't just beat Obama, he cured a lot of his perceived problems with likability, which buys him a lot of Teflon when Obama and others are trying to point out that his policies – health care, taxes and the budget, for example – don't always make sense.
Chris Ellis, Bucknell University political scientist - In some ways, Obama needs to be like a more family-friendly version of Joe Biden, whose performance made Democrats feel good again. He needs to develop a bit of his inner "attack dog," so to speak. But he needs to do so without it feeling forced, or without it seeming obviously coached or contrived.
Romney was perceived to be the winner of the last debate in large part because he appeared human and relatable to voters who had never really seen him as such before. But that task was made easier by the fact that Obama seemed uninterested in taking him on, particularly with respect to things – the 47 percent comment, for example – where he's vulnerable to being dismissed as an out-of-touch rich guy. So Romney will have to find a way to be seen as a caring, engaged person while also trying to fend off what surely will be more aggressive, and more direct, attacks from Obama.
Maureen Mackey of The Fiscal Times contributed to this report.