By Aaron Zelinsky
Mr. President, you’re entering dangerous territory. With Election Day a month away, you hold a slim lead in the national polls. And when elections are close, debates matter.
Here’s the bad news: Incumbents often fare poorly in their first debate. Everyone remembers the Gipper’s famous zinger from his second 1984 debate (“I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience”); few remember that he was responding to a question about his abysmal performance in the first debate. George H.W. Bush so disliked his first debate in 1992 that he checked his watch to see when it would end.
But there’s good news: Having watched all of your past debates as well as Mitt Romney’s, I’m confident you can pull this off. I know you’re busy — you’ve got a taxing day job — so here are a few quick tips on what (and what not) to do tonight. Because the debate is about domestic issues, I’ve limited my advice to that realm. If you want to talk foreign policy before the next debate, drop me a line.
Swing for the middle. In 2008, John McCain received almost 46 percent of the vote. To paraphrase a certain Republican presidential candidate, there’s no way you’re going to get that vote (that doesn’t mean they’re not your concern, but that’s a topic for another time). You need the swing voters left in the middle (Hello, Ohio! Hello, Florida!). And those voters want to see that you.
Have a plan. It’s not enough for you to argue that we just need to stay the course. You need to talk about tangible domestic goals and a path for reaching them. You’ve got to discuss some policy tonight. Plus, that will help you to:
Be presidential. If people come away from this debate thinking that President Obama is running against former Gov. Romney, you’re in great shape. While the debates provide Romney with an opportunity to appear next to you as an equal, you’ve still got the prestige of the presidency. This means not losing your cool, getting flustered, or sounding caustic.
Of course, even if you do all of this, you could still fall into several potholes. Here are the major ones I see looming:
Don’t blame Bush. I know, you inherited the worst economic situation since the Great Depression. And it takes more than four years to solve, particularly with a Congress like this one. But the American people don’t buy that argument. And if you blame President Bush, it leaves you open for Romney to deploy another famous Reaganism: “There you go again.” Talking about George W. Bush is like putting your high school achievements on your resume when you’re in college. It’s just not seen as relevant.
Don’t just take hits. I know some of your advisers are arguing that as long as you fight Romney to a draw, you’ve won. And one way to do this is by smiling and staying above the fray while he hammers you. That’s wrong.
This election is too close for you to play Rope-a-Mitt. You’ve got to come out swinging. So when he asks, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago” (another Reaganism), you’ve got to return fire, and show that while we can do better, you’ve got a record to run on.
Don’t listen too much to debate advice: Don’t listen to hacks like me. The strongest thing you have going is that the American people like you, and they don’t like Romney. So stay relaxed up there. If you get up and act too much like a different person, they’ll catch on.
Aaron Zelinsky of New Haven, Conn., served as special assistant to the legal adviser of the U.S. Department of State from 2010 to 2011. He is the editor of the Presidential Debate Blog (www.PresidentialDebateBlog.com). He wrote this for The Hartford Courant. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.