It’s widely agreed that Joe Biden has a big job ahead of him tonight. Barack Obama’s disastrous performance last week gave Mitt Romney an opening to turn the race into something of a toss-up: he’s moved to a 1.1 point lead in the Real Clear Politics average, and has closed the gap to less than a point in the Pollster average. At FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver says he has nearly than doubled his chance of becoming president — to just under 33 percent — and the most recent national polls show real movement for the Republican nominee.

Biden’s job, in essence, is to stem the bleeding. He may not convince undecideds to return to Obama — that’s a task for the next presidential debate — but a strong performance might energize despondent Democratic voters. Given the degree to which Romney’s gains have a lot to do with the post-debate wave of Republican enthusiasm, renewed Democratic excitement could go a long way towards closing the gap and stabilizing the race in Obama’s favor.

While the last week was arguably Team Obama’s worst week of the campaign, the fundamentals of this election are still in his favor, even if that only translates to a slight advantage for the president. The unemployment rate is down to 7.8 percent, and jobless claims have also taken a large dip, falling to a four-year low of 339,000. Overall economic growth is still steady — if a little sluggish — and Obama’s approval rating remains near or above the 50 percent mark. Gallup has his approval at 53 percent, while Rasmussen places it at 50 percent. Positive approval doesn’t guarantee a win, but it isn’t a bad sign.

Lastly, as Greg pointed out earlier this morning, Romney’s gains have yet to translate into significant movement in the swing states. The most recent polls from Marist/NBC News/Wall Street Journal show Obama with leads in Ohio and Florida, while the latest from the New York Times/CBS News/Quinnipiac show him with leads in Virginia and Wisconsin. At most, Marist shows Romney with a 1 point lead in Virginia, and Quinnipiac has him with a 1 point lead in Colorado.

After the first debate, I wrote that the outcome wouldn’t fundamentally shift the race. It’s still too early to say if that’s true. But if Joe Biden can give a decent performance, and if Obama can improve in the next debate, then things will probably revert to where they’ve been for most of the year — a close race, with Obama at a slight advantage.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect , where he writes a blog .