At Debate, Obama Needs Force, Vigor, and Fire

President Obama must showcase his mastery of politics and policy to the American people tonight.


Honey, you know it's bad when Bruce Springsteen plays Ohio right about now. 

Help me here—bring my smelling salts—to get into a good groove for the presidential debate tonight.  

Tuesday, October 16. Sorry to say, but it feels seriously late in the game for President Barack Obama to be running even. The deal was, he'd win going away after Bill Clinton explained his presidency at a political revival meeting down South. And so we dwelled in a land of Hope, after the party convention and before the first debate. Before the fall, I might add. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

The scariest words President Obama spoke in Denver—see if you don't agree—were at the end: "I think this has been a terrific debate." Come on. 

America knew who won without the punditocracy telling them. Obama did not "speak like a president," as a taxi driver said sadly. 

Diehards were deeply disappointed. Some of the party faithful, believers in the dream back in 2008, were actually angry at the president's fecklessness. From the start, he suggested his wedding anniversary was more important than facing his opponent, Republican Mitt Romney, and millions of his fellow Americans. 

And now we Ds are all nervous wrecks. Dan Rather's comment that it's the most important debate in the nation's history didn't help. Nothing less than a decisive win will do. 

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Who Won the First Debate Between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama?]

Tonight, Obama must overcome the country's moody sea change and assert his mastery over politics and policy. He needs to talk about "fairness" over and over, as the lighthouse for the ship of state at home and abroad. He might mention healthcare reform, if he's feeling daring. He might brag a bit about ending "don't ask, don't tell"—so gays can serve openly in the military—as a step forward for human rights. Express determination to make the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire, as he should have done two years ago. And mind the small stuff: Loose talk about "Congress" hurts feelings on his own side.  

Instead, Obama should specifically attack the Tea Party House Republican majority, the unruly 2010 class, for how close they came to driving the global economy into freefall. The 2011 debt limit crisis was a very close call. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]

But Obama lives and breathes by sweet reason, supremely confident in his powers of persuasion. That character strength is also his governing flaw. Here's the thing: The good king—or the president—must have a measure of force, enough to inspire both fear in enemies and loyalty among allies. Here in Washington, the lukewarm chorus about Obama is like the old refrain in New York publishing houses: "I like him, but I don't love him." 

It was so cutting clear in Charlotte that we Ds still love Clinton. The gathering of 20,000 souls was rapt. Four years ago, Obama coasted to victory on a similar wave of euphoria that vanished and is no more. He's now on land, tough terrain, like those pilgrims who came upon a land called Massachusetts. 

Let's see Obama anew at the debate with the former governor of Massachusetts: with force, vigor, and fire. Show us those three things, Mr. President—please. 

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