Mr. President, youre 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.
Heres the bad news: Incumbents often fare poorly in their first debate. Everyone remembers Ronald Reagans famous zinger from his second 1984 debate (I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponents 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 theres good news: Having watched all of your past debates as well as Mitt Romneys, Im confident you can pull this off. I know youre busy youve got a taxing day job so here are a few quick tips on what (and what not) to do tonight.
Swing for the middle. In 2008, John McCain received almost 46 percent of the vote. To paraphrase a certain Republican presidential candidate, theres no way youre going to get that vote (that doesnt mean theyre not your concern, but thats 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. Its 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. Youve got to discuss some policy. 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, youre in great shape. While the debates provide Romney with an opportunity to appear next to you as an equal, youve 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:
Dont 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 dont 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 youre in college. Its just not seen as relevant.
Dont just take hits. I know some of your advisers are arguing that as long as you fight Romney to a draw, youve won. And one way to do this is by smiling and staying above the fray while he hammers you. Thats wrong. This election is too close for you to play Rope-a-Mitt. Youve got to come out swinging. So when he asks, Are you better off today than you were four years ago (another Reaganism), youve got to return fire, and show that while we can do better, youve got a record to run on.
Dont listen too much to debate advice: Dont listen to hacks like me. The strongest thing you have going is that the American people like you, and they dont like Romney. So stay relaxed up there dont take so much advice that you try to change who you are, because the American people know you after four years. If you get up and act too much like a different person, theyll catch on. Besides, you did the debate thing in 2008; its a piece of cake. No sweat.
Thats all Ive got, Mr. President. Good luck.
MCT Information Services
Aaron Zelinsky 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.