What does President Obama need to do in the debates?

President Obama doesn't need a decisive win as badly as Mitt Romney does in the upcoming debate – but he can't afford any missteps, either.

Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot/AP
President Obama speaks at Farm Bureau Live during a campaign stop in Virginia Beach, Va., on Thursday.

On Wednesday, we addressed what Mitt Romney needs to do in next week’s debate. Now it’s President Obama’s turn. The stakes may not be quite as high for him. (As we said, the first debate is shaping up as make-or-break for Mr. Romney.) But it’s still going to be a critical moment for the president.

While Mr. Obama is well known for his ability to move crowds on the stump, debating is a different skill, and one for which he’s demonstrated less of a natural affinity. Not surprisingly, aides have been trying to lower expectations for the debates, saying he’s been working on condensing his responses and trying to be less professorial.

So, what does Obama need to do? Here’s our handy Decoder cheat sheet:

Be the president. Possibly the best line from Obama’s convention speech was this one: “I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the president.” He went on to say he knew what it was like to send young men and women into battle, and to grieve with their parents when they didn’t return. It was a smart way of telling voters that he has gained a unique depth of experience in both foreign and domestic affairs, and that that knowledge would be a huge asset in a second term. Of course, incumbency can be a double-edged sword – when the economy is bad, presidents usually get the blame. But the position itself still has a tendency to elevate whomever holds it, and Obama has shown himself adept at using his presidential stature to make Romney look inexperienced by comparison. 

Be humble. The biggest potential pitfall for Obama may be a tendency to seem arrogant. In 2008, one of Obama’s worst moments came in a debate opposite Hillary Rodham Clinton, when she was asked about the fact that Obama was generally seen as “more likeable” by voters. It wound up being a great moment for Mrs. Clinton (Romney, take note!), who joked, “I don't think I'm that bad.” But Obama couldn’t resist interjecting: “You’re likeable enough, Hillary.” The unprompted dig came across as cocky and condescending – and it cost him with women voters. Likewise, throughout this campaign, Obama has had to walk a careful balancing act: defending his record, but not seeming too proud of it, or implying that he thinks things are better than they actually are. He needs to give voters confidence that he has already taken many steps that are moving the economy in the right direction. And he has to convince them that if reelected, he’ll work even harder to do more.

Channel Bill Clinton. If there’s one thing we learned at the Democratic National Convention, it’s that former President Bill Clinton may in fact be the party’s greatest speaker – at least, when it comes to explaining policy in a conversational, easy-to-grasp manner, without ever seeming to talk down to voters. For all Obama’s soaring speeches, he has never made the case for his own economic policies as well as Mr. Clinton did. Significantly, Obama’s recent gains in the polls seem to be in part a reflection of the fact that voters are suddenly feeling more optimistic about the direction of the economy – and many analysts have speculated that it was Clinton’s convention speech that planted the seeds of this new optimism. The debate offers a great forum for Obama to make Clinton’s arguments his own (and possibly emulate some of his down-to-earth style).

A big advantage Obama has going in to this first debate is that he can play it safe. Because he’s currently ahead, he doesn’t necessarily have to win the first debate outright – though, obviously, a misstep could do serious damage. In fact, many other incumbent presidents have been deemed the “loser” of their first debate (including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush) and still gone on to win reelection. On the other hand, a big win for Obama could be crushing to Romney – which means this first debate could present the president with a chance to put the game out of reach. As long as he doesn’t overreach.

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