The Washington Post

At second presidential debate, pressure will be on Obama

Reporter

When President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney take the stage at Hofstra University on Tuesday night for the second presidential debate, the pressure to perform will be squarely on the incumbent.

Thirteen days will have passed since Obama’s not-a-disaster-but-close performance in the first presidential debate in Denver, a showing that he and his campaign initially tried to shrug off as a draw but came around to admitting looked more like a rout for Romney.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House. View Archive

The two weeks since have been filled with second-guessing — and second thoughts — from the Democratic base. Although Vice President Biden’s over-the-top performance in last week’s vice-presidential debate helped re-energize many of the party’s activists, there is still considerable anticipation/trepidation about whether Obama will (or can) perform better in this second showdown.

Although Obama’s ability to show some fight — or, at the very least, not look like he wants to get off the stage as quickly as possible — will be the dominant story line of Tuesday night, there are a few other interesting narrative strands to keep an eye on. We’ve plucked out three of those most interesting below.

●Obama the (more) aggressive: Obama is never going to give a debate performance like Biden turned in last week. (And that may be a good thing.) The president, for all of the time he has spent in politics, remains the college professor at heart — a cool and calculating clinician more than a heart-on-the-sleeve emoter when it comes to debating (and politics more generally). But, Obama and his team also know that another “does he even want to win” performance like he gave in Denver could cost him the race. And so, Obama is likely to use many of the attacks he didn’t in the first debate: Romney’s ties to Bain Capital, Romney’s “47 percent” comments and Romney’s unwillingness to put any meat on the bones of his tax plan. Remember, though, that Obama has never had to play the aggressor in a general election debate before. In the three debates with Sen. John McCain in 2008, it was clear that then-Sen. Obama of Illinois was playing it very safe, knowing that the Arizona Republican had to come out swinging in hopes of landing a blow that might change the trajectory of the contest. Although Obama remains a slight national favorite — and a slightly larger favorite in the electoral math — he will still feel pressure to play offense, a very unfamiliar position for him.

●Can Romney do it again?: It’s hard to debate that Romney’s performance in Denver turned the entire narrative of the presidential race around. But Romney’s strong showing in Denver also changed the dynamic for this week’s debate in New York — with the expectations of who will win reversed. (In the run-up to the first debate, polling suggested that large majorities expected Obama to win.) That means that Romney won’t benefit from the “he’s doing surprisingly well” story line. Nor will he probably get such a passive showing from Obama again. And while Romney’s performance in the first debate has clearly given him real momentum in the race, he has simply pulled himself closer to Obama, not passed him. To make up the ground he needs to in critical swing states such as Ohio, Ohio (and, yes, we know we mentioned Ohio twice — it’s that important), Virginia and Colorado, Romney probably needs another win in Tuesday’s debate — if not one as lopsided as he scored in Denver. Knowing that, and with Obama almost certain not to lie down as he did in the first debate, can Romney still shine?

●Town hall= tough(er) to attack: The setting for the second debate will be a town hall full of “average” Americans with CNN’s terrific Candy Crowley moderating. The questions in the debate will be asked by people in the audience, with Crowley following up or holding the candidates accountable as she feels it’s needed. That sort of format makes it tougher for the candidates to go harshly negative on each other than if it was simply the two of them standing behind podiums with Crowley seated at a table between them. The town hall backdrop puts a premium on trying to connect with the struggles, worries and hopes of the person asking the questions, not scoring points on scripted attack lines — although there probably will be plenty of those, too. The bar to being seen as overly or unnecessarily negative is far lower in a town hall debate than in a more traditional setting, meaning that both candidates will need to walk a very fine line with their attacks.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
Republicans debated Saturday night. The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
GOP candidates react to Justice Scalia's death
Quoted
I don't know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn't speak Spanish.
Sen. Marco Rubio, attacking Sen. Ted Cruz in Saturday night's very heated GOP debate in South Carolina. Soon after, Cruz went on a tirade in Spanish.
The Fix asks The State's political reporter where the most important region of the state is.
The State's Andy Shain says he could talk about Charleston, which represents a little bit of everything the state has to offer from evangelicals to libertarians, and where Ted Cruz is raising more money than anywhere else. In a twist, Marco Rubio is drawing strong financial support from more socially conservative Upstate. That said, Donald Trump is bursting all the conventional wisdom in the state. So maybe the better answer to this question is, "Wherever Trump is."
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, where he faces rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read

politics

decision2012

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.