Thomas Jefferson saw it coming.
"No man will ever carry out of the presidency the reputation which carried him into it," he said.
It's an assessment that "Mad Tom," as detractors called Jefferson, likely would have applied to Barack Obama after that disastrous first debate against Mitt Romney. The president managed, in 90 short minutes, to obliterate much of his own reputation. The passivity, the staring down, the reluctance to engage the opposition: The president has come a long way from the ferocious competitor that we saw dismantle the Clinton machine four years ago. Unfortunately for him, it's the wrong way.
Now, for a wounded president, it has come down to this: Another 90 minutes to turn it around against Mitt Romney, a once-maligned rival who now seems to be peaking at just the right time, energized and with the wind seemingly at his back.
Can President Obama do it? The "conventional wisdom" is that the president will do much better tonight than he did 13 days ago. One thing seems clear: It would be hard for him to do worse.
Obama knows he screwed up. He has watched the tape. He has read the reviews. He has heard from advisors. His closest advisor of all — the First Lady — has no doubt given him an earful.
Obama knows he screwed up. He has watched the tape. He has read the reviews.
How shaky has it gotten for Obama in just 13 days? Prior to the first debate, the University of Virginia's Center for Politics had Obama's electoral college count of solid and likely leaning votes at well over 300, and well beyond the golden 270 needed to win re-election. It is now down to 277. Two of the three biggest unclaimed prizes — Florida's 29 electoral votes, and Virginia's 13 — no longer appear to be leaning toward the president. Bad news indeed.
But it's hardly all gloom and doom for Obama. Ohio (18 electoral votes) still appears to be on his side. And if Obama wins Ohio, there are far fewer paths to victory for Romney. If he loses the Buckeye State, Romney needs to win practically every other swing state, which is a tough proposition given that two of them — Wisconsin (which voted Democratic in the last six presidential elections) and Iowa (five of six) currently back Obama.
The president has buckled down for this debate. Advisors cleared much of Friday's White House schedule, and since Saturday, Obama has been hunkered down at the Kingsmill, a resort in Williamsburg, Va., practicing. Once again, Sen. John Kerry has been playing the role of Gov. Romney.
But practicing for what, exactly? It's not a question of Obama knowing the issues. He does, in great detail. For his sake, what the president needs to have been working on is his body language, his eye contact, his ability to be forceful and direct. He needs to look and sound, well, like a president.
Obama seems to know this, telling a radio talk show last week that he was 'too polite" to Romney on Oct. 3, and that there will be "more activity" tonight. This shouldn't mean Joe Biden-like activity, by the way, which was over the top and not presidential. Biden's task was to reverse the GOP's momentum and poke holes in their ideas. Obama's task is to restore his badly-bruised image.
Tonight's town hall format is both opportunity and danger for Obama, as it is for Romney. The president has done scores of events over the last few years in which he has taken questions from the audience. But those events have tended to be more controlled, and attended largely by partisan supporters. This won't be the case tonight. The audience at Hofstra University consists of undecided voters, and no one knows what they'll ask. Half the questions will be on domestic policy, half on foreign policy. So both men had better be prepared for a wildcard question — the kind that can catch them off guard, or provide their opponent with an opening.
For his part, Romney has far less experience with the town hall-style event. One challenge for him is to empathize with regular people — the 47 percent — and show, as Bill Clinton famously said, that he feels their pain. You can expect Obama to mention Romney's damaging and derisive crack — and perhaps an actual member of that "dependent" 47 percent group will. Romney has an answer all ready to go, of course — it wasn't elegantly stated, it was inarticulate, of course he cares about all Americans, he claims.
Given that the final debate on Oct. 22 will focus solely on foreign policy, tonight is the last opportunity for both men to engage with a national audience on the issues that have dominated this presidential campaign from the very beginning: the economy, jobs, taxes, and the role of government. The Obama campaign has been on the defensive about all this since 2009, but Joe Biden's full-throated defense of the administration's economic plan — and its achievements — signaled a late shift in campaign strategy. The Obama camp has now decided that not enough has been said about 5.2 million private-sector jobs added since the recession ended in June 2009. Obama is also likely to mention the rebounding housing market, and the fact that consumer confidence (according to a survey last week by Thompson-Reuters and the University of Michigan) stands at its highest level since September 2007.
This is all evidence, the president will say tonight, that things are turning around — why change horses in mid-stream? But Mr. Obama knows that while what he says is important — it's how he says it that may make the difference.