THE DUELING niceties of President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney arrived after months of figuratively beating each other’s brains out. Team Obama überbrain David Axelrod released a statement commending Romney as “prepared, disciplined and aggressive.” Beth Myers, Axelrod’s opposite number for Team Romney, released a bon mot of her own, saying the president enjoyed “natural gifts and extensive seasoning.”
This is not the campaign in a parallel universe; these damnations with great praise mean one thing: the debate season is about to begin.
Few things distill the distinctions between presidential campaigns, their styles and messages, quite like the debates. The ones for this election cycle start on Wednesday, at Denver University, and they bring opportunity and challenges for both.
And the debates may be Romney’s last chance to counteract what Charles Blow of The New York Times described Wednesday on MSNBC as “the calcification of incompetence” as a baseline perception — the solidifying in the public mind of the idea that Romney is simply not up to the job.
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Obama benefits by his policy prescriptions actually being in place in America. From the Lily Ledbetter Act to the Dreamers immigration overhaul, from the strategic rescue of the auto industry (a gambit that’s yielded the U.S. Treasury handsome returns on investment) to the Affordable Care Act, President Obama has implemented tangible programs with tangible results.
A September survey from The Associated Press and GfK asked: “Who do you trust to do a better job handling the economy?” Obama topped Romney, 50 percent to Romney’s 41 percent. The AP-GfK poll found Americans giving points to the president on handling the federal budget deficit, health care and other domestic areas of concern.
Ohio and Florida voters have more confidence in an economic rebound under an Obama second term than under Romney, according to a Washington Post poll. “Two thirds (64 percent) of Ohio registered voters said that the “loans to General Motors and Chrysler during the financial market problems” had been a “mostly good” thing for the economy,” reported Chris Cillizza of The Post on Sept. 25.
They’re not alone. The AP-GfK poll asked Americans if they thought the economy would improve over the next year, get worse or stay the same. Some 49 percent said the economy would get better; 24 percent said little would change; only 15 percent said things would get worse.
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THESE THREE debates won’t be a cakewalk for President Obama. When his boardroom game face is on, Mitt Romney can be a strong debater, with a mastery of the quotable sentence or the able distillation. During one of the GOP primary-season debates, in a relentless and slashing style, he damn near ran Newt Gingrich out of the building. The president will need to suppress his inner professor, tamp down his wonkish tendencies and really connect with people — not just the audience in the hall at Denver University but the 52 million people expected to watch across the country.
And President Obama has a tendency to freeze when speaking extemporaneously, backtracking to correct words, fumbling at times when not using prepared remarks. He sometimes hurries responses to questions; it’s a slight but striking oratorical disconnect from the president’s painstakingly deliberate approach to decision-making in the White House. He needs to relax, to stay on his toes but to quietly revel in the wind at his back, the confidence that extends from a solid, weeks-long plurality of leads in opinion polls across the ideological spectrum.
Neera Tanden, director of the Center for American Progress and the person who headed debate prep for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 race, said it plain to The Times what Obama needs to do: “The sale has been made. He just needs to reaffirm it. He just needs to not get in the way.”
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This leads to Romney’s second, specific problem: an absence of details about how he’d improve on the president’s performance in office, the details he needs to persuade the nation he’s presidential material.