Few people were impressed with President Obama's oddly listless debate performance Wednesday night — including the president himself, according to one Democrat close to the Obama campaign. And Team Obama seems to have gotten the message. Chief strategist David Axelrod conceded Thursday that Obama will take a "hard look" at the debate to make some strategic "adjustments" before his next encounter with his "artful dodger" opponent, Mitt Romney. Axelrod didn't say what exactly Obama plans to do differently on Oct. 16, but the president is getting plenty of unsolicited advice from the commentariat. Here are seven ways Obama can adjust to his newly invigorated challenger:
1. Play offense
The biggest criticism of Obama is that he came to the debate with a "prevent defense" strategy — running out the clock without blowing his lead — and he let Romney score a "field goal," or even "two touchdowns." Obama wanted to seem calm, reasonable, and statesmanlike, says Noam Scheiber at The New Republic, but he ended up "not just in a defensive crouch but a stunningly conservative one," and it didn't work against a hyper-energetic Romney. "In the next two debates, we will surely see a much more aggressive and focused Obama," says John Cassidy at The New Yorker. But Obama's already gifted Romney "a big boost in confidence and credibility."
2. Bring his zingers to the debate
"After a night to sleep on it, and some time to huddle with aides, Obama on Thursday found the lively retorts that had eluded him Wednesday night," says Dana Milbank at The Washington Post. But by then it was too late to jump into the yawning openings Romney had given to him: The comeback to Romney's "I need to get a better accountant" practically writes itself. It was eerily like that Seinfeld episode where George Costanza spends the whole half-hour trying to come up with the perfect retort to a colleague, says Conn Carroll at The Washington Examiner. Mother Jones' Adam Serwer summed up the Obama-Costanza meme: "Shorter Obama today: 'Oh yeah? Well the JERK STORE called, and they're running out of YOU!'"
3. Look like he wants to be there
"Obama didn't really blow Wednesday night's debate in any spectacular or memorable way," says Matt Bai at The New York Times. His main "transgression was that he seemed to simply endure it," while Romney obviously, even desperately, relished the fight. This is what Bill Clinton excels at, "and what debates really demand of you": The drive to "persuade people that you're right, by making complex arguments sound simple and self-evident." In 2008, Obama's "lack of neediness" was a big strength, but it turns out that "craving validation is a useful political trait," especially in debates.
4. Press Romney on his lies
Perhaps the best explanation for Obama's listless performance is that "he was prepared to debate the claims Romney has been making for the entire campaign," says Jonathan Chait at New York. Romney didn't play along, blithely jettisoning or "simply lying about his policies." Romney lied with devastating, "lethal" aplomb, says Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast. "The obvious response to this new Romney" is to hound him for specifics on how his new plans will work: "What is it? How is it paid for? What is he hiding from us? And why?"
5. Call Romney on his brazen flip-flopping
The preferred response Team Obama seems to have landed on for dealing with post–Etch-a-Sketch debate Romney is to deep-six the "too conservative" attacks in exchange for "the oldest criticisms of the Republican: That he's a flip-flopper," say Zeke Miller and Michael Hastings at BuzzFeed. And on everything from health care to taxes to education, Romney gave them plenty of new material to work with.
6. Get a new practice sparring partner
This was lefty filmmaker Michael Moore's advice, issued via Twitter: "Fire all debate consultants now.... This is what happens when [you] pick John Kerry as your debate coach." Conservative Mickey Kaus agreed that Obama's debate-prep stand-in for Romney was lacking. "Fire John Kerry!" he told the Los Angeles Times. "Did Obama's sparring partner not anticipate Mitt's move to moderation?" There seems to be some basis for the criticism — Politico reports that Team Obama had to bring in a debate expert to "sharpen" Kerry's performance late in the game.
7. Spend more time preparing
Axelrod says that Obama will "make adjustments" to his debate strategy, but added, "I don't see us adding huge amounts of additional prep time." That's a mistake, says Amy Davidson at The New Yorker. Yes, Obama has a day job and Romney doesn't, but the next two debates are crucial. "Reagan lost his first debate against Walter Mondale. He got it together, and won the [next] debate and the election. But it took work."
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