Obama’s Last-Minute Bet

On the eve of the second debate, Obama is wagering that you think things are looking up. For his sake, he better be right.

President Obama has to hope voters are feeling the effects of an economic recovery


Is President Obama running on the economy rather than running away from it? For months, the Obama campaign never let more than a second elapse between a boast about the economy’s progress and a declaration that they understood more work needed to be done. They didn’t want anyone to think for a moment that they didn’t know people were still hurting. The president and his team didn’t want to look out of touch. They knew that no matter what the numbers might say, people were not feeling better.

Now though, it appears there may be a subtle shift. With just three weeks before Election Day, the Obama campaign is making a bet that people are feeling better about the economy. In a new Obama ad released Monday, voters talk about the improved economy—a plant that added another shift, a store parking lot filled with customers. At the end, a guy with a buzz cut says, “Stick with this guy.” Remember how much trouble the president got himself into for saying, “The private sector is doing fine”? The Obama campaign still isn’t saying that. The economy is nothing to be boastful about. But Obama strategists are taking a gamble that people are optimistic enough about the future that they might not want to blow it by changing presidents.

Heading into the second debate, President Obama must pay careful attention to Mitt Romney. He must fact-check him, point out the fuzzy math behind his bold claims, and paint him as a stealth conservative. He’s got to stop his gains with women voters. But the president’s primary goal is still selling himself. He needs to offer voters some reason to stay with him. For months the Obama campaign has been trying to disqualify Mitt Romney. It worked through the spring and summer. More people had an unfavorable than favorable view of the Republican nominee. Now that ground has been lost. Voters have essentially the same slightly favorable view of both men. That puts Romney in a strong position with swing voters who supported Obama in 2008 but are ready to leave him. The Romney campaign has always been gunning for this group, knowing they could be swayed up until the end of the race. The president can’t just frighten those voters back into the fold; he’s got to make the case for why they should “stick with this guy.”

“We’re on a roll,” says one Obama senior adviser, encapsulating the message. “We’re in the middle of a huge recovery,” said Michelle Obama recently. It’s risky. The Obama team can’t spin people into thinking that the economy is getting better. At this late hour, people either feel it or they don’t. If the Obama campaign is making the wrong bet, the argument for four more years will fall on deaf ears. What gives the Obama team some encouragement is not only that the unemployment rate is below 8 percent but that polling suggests people are slightly more optimistic. A Washington Post poll today showed 42 percent say the country is on the right track. That’s the highest percentage in three years. It’s hardly “Happy Days Are Here Again.” But then again, George Bush was re-elected with the same level of tepid optimism.

In the first debate, Romney dunked on Obama repeatedly and the president didn’t do much to stop him. Obama didn’t play much offense either. The president doesn’t have an easily digestible five-point plan voters can look at to give them a peek at what the future will hold. But by arguing that the positions he took in the past are paying off, he can talk with passion about what he has accomplished, which solves one of his biggest problems from the first debate. When he talks about the fights he has already won, Obama has a chance to show voters that he’ll be that passionate in the future, too.

The town hall format will be unpredictable for both candidates. Both are trying to do two things: criticize their opponent while not appearing so aggressive that they turn off voters. That would be difficult in any debate—it’s one of the many things Romney did well in the first contest—but in this case both candidates will be trying to get the balance right in response to a question from a voter in the audience. The more the candidate talks about his opponent’s flaws the more he can be accused of not answering the voter’s question. It’s one thing to ignore a moderator, but when it’s a voter, who can be a stand-in for the electorate, it’s more perilous—especially when that voter displays his or her displeasure for all of America to see.

Who has an advantage in the town hall setting? Neither candidate is particularly good at emoting in one-on-one conversations. Obama once made fun of Romney for responding to an Iowa woman’s worries about her personal economic situation by talking about productivity, but the president is no smooth talker either. He once responded to a voter’s question with a 2,500-word ramble that took 17 minutes.

The town hall format is not all peril though. Each candidate has a chance to use the voters to make their bigger case. Mitt Romney, for example, could pivot off a weak Obama answer by looking a voter in the eye and explaining how specifically he would offer a different approach. President Obama has an opportunity to make something of Romney’s lack of specificity by turning to a voter and (respectfully!) pointing out that Romney was trying to fool her.

Any time a woman asks a question, move to the edge of your seat. Romney campaign polling after the first debate showed that he helped himself with women by talking about bipartisanship and his record of working with Democrats in Massachusetts. A new Gallup poll of battleground states shows Romney pulling even with Obama among women. The Obama campaign argues that Gallup doesn’t measure likely voters properly. Could be. But Gallup would have to be really wrong for this finding not to be considered a bad sign with an important group Obama needs to do well with women in order to balance out Romney’s advantage with male voters. We’ll see what they really believe though when the president addresses issues that women care about or in how he frames economic questions. Female voters have been a constant preoccupation of the Obama campaign. In the first debate, Obama talked at length about his grandmother, herself an early working woman, to make the case for protecting Social Security and Medicare.

Both Obama and Romney have a history of doing well when they are in a tight spot. Romney showed it in Round One. Now Obama has his chance. His back is against the wall. If he doesn’t step up, he may be leaning against the exit door.

Watch the latest episode of Political Kombat, pitting Joe Biden against Paul Ryan:

Also in Slate, Kerry Howley writes that “’ debate’ is probably too elevated a word for what we’ll be seeing tonight,” and David Weigel revisits the 2008 town hall debate between Obama and John McCain. Here are reasons for both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to be optimistic.