Political consultants far more expert than me have undoubtedly spent much of the last week providing President Obama with advice about how to improve his debate performance. Be more assertive, have greater command of the facts, engage your opponent. In short, be the opposite of the guy who walked on stage in Denver with all the enthusiasm of a man about to have a colonoscopy. While I did not have the benefit of a Harvard Law education like Messrs. Obama and Romney, I do know a thing or two about making a compelling argument, so let me make a few suggestions for our President:
Tax Cuts: Repeating that Governor Romney wants to cut taxes by $5 trillion over ten years does a disservice to the sheer weight of income redistribution that entails. Instead, separate that $5 trillion out into its component parts – (1) elimination of the estate tax (which, even under current law, affects less than 1% of estates), (2) permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts (forests have been cut down highlighting how those tax cuts have disproportionately aided the wealthy), (3) a further 20 percent reduction in current tax rates (yet more goodies for the rich!), (4) elimination of the Alternate Minimum Tax (initially created to ensure wealthy people paid their “fair share”) and (5) the elimination of taxation on interest, dividends and capital gains (the three main ways Romney himself generates income).
See a pattern? It’s not just that these tax cuts disproportionately favor the wealthy, it’s that coupling this massive redistribution of wealth with ideas included in the “Ryan Plan” that would do everything from block granting Medicaid (resulting in millions of poor people losing access to health care) to trimming Pell Grants (which would allow fewer students to attend college) should allow the President to frame the choice voters make between someone who wants the rich to pay their fair share so we can invest in our future (Obama) versus someone who wants to give even more to those who already have so much and hope the rest “trickles down” to the rest of us (Romney).
Secret Plans: In a debate performance roundly criticized as aloof, disinterested and weak, one part of Obama’s message from Denver that was effective was his rhetoric about why it was that if Romney’s policies are so great for the middle class, they are being hidden. I would like to see Obama amplify this point and pivot it to the policy shifts Romney has made on everything from immigration reform (claimed he would veto DREAM ACT, now says he won’t deport (self, or otherwise) some “illegals”) to abortion (expressed support for Mississippi’s personhood amendment, now claims he has no interest in abortion legislation) and education (has said classrooms are not overcrowded and new teachers are not needed, now “loves” teachers and won’t do anything to harm education.) In so doing, Obama would be underscoring Romney’s inclination toward secrecy and obfuscation and underscore the important point that voters can’t trust what Romney says because he has taken so many different positions on the same issues in the past.
Consequences: Obama missed opportunities in the first debate to tease out the consequences of a Romney Presidency. For example, when Romney talked about his plan to “reform” Medicare he claimed his plan would not impact current seniors. Obama failed to note that by repealing Obamacare (something Romney said he would do) current seniors would be affected because the prescription drug donut hole would not be closed, resulting in the elderly continuing to pay more for their medication. Obama also only mentioned in passing that by restoring the so-called $716 billion in “cuts” to Medicare, Romney would be lining the pockets of hospitals and insurance companies and the “cuts” made in Obamacare did not come out of benefits given to people enrolled in the program. Obama also missed easy opportunities to appeal to moderates (particularly suburban women) because he failed to note the importance of appointing Supreme Court justices who will not overturn Roe or that the ACA requires health insurers to provide coverage for birth control.
Further, Obama did not hit Romney for selecting as his Vice President a man who SPONSORED THE BILL to privatize Social Security. Instead, and oddly, Obama claimed he and Romney were not that far apart on Social Security “reform.” Lastly, and as President Clinton eloquently discussed in Charlotte, the impact of Medicaid cuts would be devastating to the elderly poor and minors who receive assistance from this program. Wrapping the reductions and changes to these core social safety net programs into Romney’s radical tax policy agenda would underscore the consequences of electing him.
Rebuttal: Lloyd Bentsen’s famous “you’re no Jack Kennedy” line was the essence of effective rebuttal. Whoever did debate prep for Senator Bentsen knew Quayle would mention the fact that his experience was on par with Kennedy’s when the latter ran for President and they teed up that line for Bentsen, who delivered it to devastating effect. Obama missed easy retorts that would have shut Romney down – for example, when Romney discussed his bi-partisan mien as Governor, Obama could have noted that the Legislature overrode more than 700 Romney vetoes or that Romney did not run for re-election in part because of his unpopularity (Romney’s approval ratings hovered in the 30s). Another example is standard Romney stump speech fare about not wanting to borrow money from China to finance <fill in the blank.> Romney dropped that line into the first debate, where a better prepared President could have pushed back by saying Romney wants to borrow from China to give more tax breaks to rich people. Effective debating is as much about knowing your own positions as your opponent’s, and on that score, Obama failed. He has to do better the second time around.
By the same token, Obama needs to be better prepared to rebut claims Romney will make against him, whether it is on questions of the economy, the passage of the Affordable Care Act, funding that was provided through the Recovery Act and other key parts of the Romney critique (all of which make up the basic parts of his stump speeches and campaign ads). This is where the vaunted “zinger” may be strategically used but more substantively, allows the President a clear shot at debunking the falsehoods that permeate Romney’s campaign. Obama can point to huge gains in the stock market, that filings for unemployment are at pre-recession levels, and foreclosures are at 5 year lows. When it comes to the economy, people don’t like politicians talking it down – we are an optimistic people by nature and Obama needs to put Romney in the position of either sounding dour and negative or twisting himself to sound positive (while not giving the President credit, and therefore sounding petty).
The Obama Record: While Obama talks at a superficial level about things like the auto bailout, killing Bin Laden and passing health care reform, he needs to do a better job of connecting those achievements to a broader narrative. It was not just bailing out GM and Chrysler that helped the economy, it also helped parts suppliers, dealerships and businesses unconnected to the auto industry like restaurants and retail shops because jobs saved and created resulted in economic growth – as an example, Ohio’s unemployment rate is below the national average; Michigan’s has dropped more than 5% since Obama came into office. By connecting his decision to outcomes in the real world, Obama can turn the abstract into the actual.
Similarly, one of the most powerful testimonials to Obamacare was a speech given at the Democratic National Convention by Stacy Lihn, whose daughter Zoe suffers from a defective heart and requires long-term (and expensive) treatment. Little Zoe will receive as much care as she needs now because insurance companies can no longer cap lifetime expenses. The same is true of changes that now allow young adults to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26, sent millions in reimbursement to policy holders because their providers are not spending the minimum amount of premiums toward coverage and rules that will stop insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions beginning in 2014. Not only do these changes make a difference in the aggregate, but they speak to the President’s commitment to the ideal of health coverage as a right and not a privilege.
But Obama must take it one step further and push back against Romney’s desire to repeal Obamacare and pin him down on what will replace it. The lip service Romney has paid to saving the “good” parts is insufficient, Obama has to press him to be specific, to explain to seniors why Romney wants them to pay more for their prescriptions and to the Lihn family, who will have to worry that little Zoe will not get the medical treatment she needs. Romney also needs to be called to account for his comment that people without insurance can still access medical treatment through the emergency room, which is only the least efficient and most expensive method of delivering health care.
And if the discussion turns toward working together and being bi-partisan, Obama needs to point out that more than 150 Republican-sponsored amendments to what became “Obamacare” ended up in the bill, but he still did not receive any support from them or that 40 percent of the stimulus bill he passed a few weeks after his Inauguration was made up tax cuts, a decision made in part to satisfy Republicans, who still voted against the bill en masse. With regard to Simpson-Bowles, the President needs to mention that Paul Ryan was on the committee and voted against its proposal and that Romney cannot both support the principles of Simpson-Bowles (which called for a 2.5:1 ration of spending cuts to tax increases) and have raised his hand at a debate earlier this year claiming he would reject a budget deal that had a 10:1 ratio. Finally, when Romney inevitably talks down the economy, Obama should point out that Romney wanted Detroit to “go bankrupt,” that Romney never supported aiding underwater homeowners and that people who have studied Romney’s plans for the economy think it will shrink the job market, not expand it.
Liar, Liar: Calling someone a liar is a strong word, particularly when you are debating that person in front of 70 million people, but Romney must be called what he is. Moreover, what the primary debates showed is that Romney does not like to be challenged and rattles easily. A well briefed and prepared President who cites clear inaccuracies and misstatements should call his opponent out for what he is and make the argument (because lord know the media won’t) that a person who will say anything to be elected President will do anything once elected. It is simply not a risk that we can take and Obama should have the brass to say so.
I AM The President. Obama’s body language during the first debate was awful. He frequently looked down, avoided eye contact and spoke slowly and with hesitation. The second debate is a town hall, the President can be warm and engaging and has a light up the room smile – he needs to show that side but also OWN the role of President both conversationally and attitudinally – that he is a man of conviction, who has made difficult decisions that were in the best interest of the country and that those decisions have borne fruit; on the other hand, that the guy standing across from him with the plastered on smile/smirk and shifty positions cannot be trusted because he represents some combination of a third Bush term and every right wing nut job’s wet dream of an automaton bill signer who will roll back protections for seniors, the poor and infirm, depriving them of a modicum of dignity while leaving the middle class behind so that the rich can grow even richer. In other words, Obama must show, through the words he speaks and the deeds he has done that he is (and will be) a President for the 100%, not just the 1%.