What President Obama Needs To Do Tonight

President Obama is perilously close to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and losing his bid for re-election.

Although I try to refrain from overstatement on this blog, I truly believe that tonight’s debate, the second, is a make or break moment for the President. If he bombs again tonight, I believe odds are good that we’ll see Mitt Romney sworn in as the 45th President of the United States on January 20, 2013.

Those are shocking statements considering that Mr. Obama looked like a sure bet just two weeks ago. But that was before he delivered one of the least inspired performances in the history of televised presidential debates and squandered his significant electoral lead.

Photo credit: Michael Reynolds of Getty Images

How bad was President Obama’s debate performance?

  • The Real Clear Politics “poll of polls” showed President Obama up nationally by 3.1 percent on the morning of the debate. Mitt Romney now leads by 0.1 percent.
  • State polls show a similar story, with states that looked solid for President Obama—including Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, Nevada, and Colorado—suddenly in play for Governor Romney.
  • Since October 7th, New York Times polling expert Nate Silver has downgraded President Obama’s chances of winning the election from 78 percent to 63 percent (update: it’s now back up to 66 percent).

Since this is a media training and strategy blog, I wanted to engage in a bit of a thought experiment. Here is the question this post will answer:

If I was the President’s media trainer, what are the three most important things I would I tell him going into tonight’s debate?

1. Bring Your Passion

Mr. President, it looked like you phoned in the first debate. I’ve heard that you view these debates as unserious and substance-free. You may be right that these debates contain a fair dose of show business. But it doesn’t matter. Mitt Romney didn’t have a problem using this constricting and superficial format to score some points—and you squandered your opportunity to also do so.

Two weeks ago, you gave tens of millions of Americans the impression that you were tired, listless, and out of ideas. Your closing statement lacked energy and looked unpolished compared to Mr. Romney’s (see video below). Tonight, you must look like you want to be there—and that you have a positive and uplifting vision for a second term.

2. Draw a Strong Contrast

Take a cue from your Vice President. At last week’s debate, Joe Biden continuously interrupted Rep. Paul Ryan to take issue with his points. Many people think he went too far in terms of his dismissive tone (he also got some of his facts wrong). Whether or not he crossed a line is subjective. But his instincts were right.

Mr. President, you must draw a contrast with Mr. Romney. If he tries to run as “Moderate Mitt,” as he did in the first debate, you have to point to his conflicting statements from his time running as a “severe conservative” during the primary. Channel Bill Clinton from the Democratic National Convention, who effectively drew clear contrasts in simple terms.

You’re famously conflict-averse. But you have to kill that trait for 90 minutes tonight, look Mr. Romney in the eye (instead of down, as you did during most of the last debate), and challenge his statements with a sense of strength and conviction.

3. Don’t Bury Your Messages

During the first debate, you spoke in meandering sentences. You must have said “uhhh” more than 100 times, which also made you sound hesitant and unsure (this exercise will help you eliminate that verbal filler).

You need to verbally separate your most important sound bites from the words that immediately precede and follow them. You can do that by giving your sound bites a vocal emphasis—preferably by speeding up and getting louder—that make them jump off the screen and into living rooms. And you need to make them 140 characters or shorter so your most important lines can be tweeted around, reprinted as newspaper headlines, and played all day tomorrow on cable news. Otherwise, your most important messages will simply get lost again.

P.S. If you’re wondering why I didn’t mention what Mitt Romney has to do in tonight’s debate, it’s because it would have been a short post: “More of the same.”

I’ll post my scorecard of tonight’s debate by midnight eastern, which will include my grades for President Obama and Governor Romney.