President Obama and his political team are promising that he will be more aggressive in the debate tomorrow night. Stylistically, that is harder to do in a town-hall setting; when your opponent is trying to answer a voter, interrupting him is especially unappealing. Likewise, voters don’t much care for histrionics.
That said, Obama lacks a meaty agenda of his own, so other than hyping a controversial job report from September, he is basically left with calling Mitt Romney either a fraud or a liar. In other words, doing essentially what he’s has done all along. How this is supposed to work this time is unclear, but get ready for a whole lot of anti-Romney rhetoric.
Romney made great strides in the last debate by setting out his agenda. He’ll want to reinforce that tomorrow. However, he’ll also want to set Obama back on his heels on everything from the economy to Libya to defense sequestration cuts. Here are a few examples:
Where have you been, Mr. President? Voters tend to dislike excuses and buck-passing, putting a big premium on getting things done. Obama has been AWOL on a slew of issues. That lends itself to Romney asking Obama where his Medicare reform, individual tax reform and job-creation programs are. It gives Romney the opportunity to do some compare-and-contrast (e.g., Obama wants to raise the top rate on the wealthy, including on small businesses, while Romney wants 1986-style base-broadening to lower the tax rates). He can point out that we are facing a defense sequestration and fiscal cliff, on which the president has refused to lead. In contrast to Obama, Romney can truthfully say he’s a deal-maker, a guy who likes to get into the numbers and figure out how to make things work.
How is that success, Mr. President ? On foreign policy it may be best to force the president to explain why things have gone so wrong. Iran is even closer to getting the bomb. Vladimir Putin is aiding Bashar al-Assad and stepping up domestic repression. Syria, as The Post’s Jackson Diehl aptly put it, “exemplifies every weakness in his foreign policy — from his excessive faith in ‘engaging’ troublesome foreign leaders to his insistence on multilateralism as an end in itself to his self-defeating caution in asserting American power.” Especially on Libya, Romney can press Obama to explain why, two weeks after the consulate attack, he was still linking the assault to an anti-Muslim video and whether he was out of the loop when it came to the deteriorating security situation there.
That’s it? That’s the best you got? When Obama goes into his routine that Romney’s tax plan is a $5 trillion cut, he should ask the president why he keeps repeating disproven talking points. Likewise on Medicare, the president seems unwilling to admit he’s taking from Medicare to pay for Obamacare (Vice President Biden said that they were just “saving” money from Medicare) and unable to characterize his opponents’ Medicare plan honestly. Without getting too exasperated, Romney can certainly remind Obama, “We went through this all last time and I can do it again, but your version still isn’t true.”
Why reward your cronies instead of developing underground energy? Here Obama is especially vulnerable in the swing states. Virginia, Ohio and other states (which happen to be critical in the election) have huge natural gas and coal supplies. We could get going on the Keystone XL pipeline as soon as the president gave the thumbs-up. Instead we’ve poured money down the drain, or rather into the pockets of his donors, to pursue green-job boondoggles. Energy development is a winning issue for Romney, not only because of jobs but because of the need for energy independence from the Middle East.
In tone, Romney should seek to duplicate his performance in the first debate. He should recount the stories on the trail, as he did effectively the first time out. And he should stress his bipartisan credentials, of which Obama has precious few. If he does all that and avoids big errors (of which he made none in the first debate), he’ll be on his way to wrapping up the race.