In little over a week, Barack Obama has gone from being a likely two-term president (according to the polls) to an imperiled incumbent who faces a must-win situation in Hempstead, N.Y., on Tuesday when he confronts Mitt Romney at Hofstra University in their second debate. The president apparently understands this, telling a radio talk show this week that he was “too polite” to Romney last time and that there will be “more activity” in Hempstead. White House press secretary Jay Carney, asked about the challenge, said that Obama realizes “the stakes are tremendously high” and that he must present “a very clear contrast.”
Obama’s biggest problem, however, may not be Romney but the debate’s format, which couldn’t be more difficult for an incumbent mounting a comeback. The second debate will be town-hall-style, where a selected audience of undecided voters asks the questions, many of which will likely focus on the president’s tenure.
Hence, Obama must figure out how to defend his record before the crowd, focusing most of his attention on his individual questioners, while at the same time attacking Romney—and all without overdoing the negativism that typically doesn’t play well in such formats. Pulling that off may be the only way the president can prove to the millions of Americans watching on TV that he can do what he failed to accomplish last week in Denver: effectively counter the insurgent across from him on the stage.
Strikingly, perhaps the gold standard for performance in a town-hall format, which was inaugurated in the 1992 election campaign, was set by the man who has been showing Obama the way to reelection recently: Bill Clinton. According to Larry Sabato, a politics expert at the University of Virginia, at that first-ever town-hall debate in Richmond, Va., then-challenger Clinton swiftly mastered the setting while President George H.W. Bush famously bungled it by looking impatiently at his watch. “Clinton managed to answer questions in a way that both directly addressed the questioner but also reflected upon Bush’s shortcomings,” says Sabato, who attended that debate.
Obama has been criticized on all sides for his weak performance at the first debate, which has led to an extraordinary comeback in national and swing-state polls for Romney that reflects both newfound confidence in the Republican nominee and fresh doubts about the president’s ability to defend his record. Obama has little choice but to go at his opponent this round. The question is whether he can do it in such a way that he doesn’t alienate the people asking the questions, wins over viewers at home, and puts him back in the race.
In a town-hall format, an attack strategy risks annoying the audience, Sabato says. In Richmond, he adds, “members of the audience could be seen openly rebelling when the candidates got too negative.”
According to the sponsoring Commission on Presidential Debates, the Hempstead face-off will be similar to other town-hall formats: The audience will be made up of undecided voters selected by the Gallup Organization, with questioners free to address both foreign and domestic issues. “Candidates each will have two minutes to respond and an additional minute for the moderator to facilitate a discussion,” the commission said.
In recent days, Clinton has again given the president a sample of how a successful counterpoint could work, telling a Democratic rally in Las Vegas: “I had a different reaction to that first debate than a lot of people did. I thought, ‘Wow, here’s old moderate Mitt. Where ya been, boy?’ ”
Obama must also confront Romney with at least a soupçon of the flair that Clinton brought to his widely praised speech at the Democratic National Convention, where he delivered a fierce point-by-point rebuttal to Romney and the Republican Party on virtually every aspect of Obama’s record.
The biggest difference between 1992 and today is that Clinton was the challenger back then; he didn’t have to spend a great deal of time defending his own record and was thus free to attack Bush. Obama, as the incumbent, will have to deal with Romney’s attacks on his tenure while at the same artfully highlighting what Democrats see as the GOP nominee’s inconsistencies since he launched a broad move to the middle—taking more moderate positions on such issues as taxes and regulation—in the Denver debate.
Hempstead will also be Obama’s last chance to mount direct attacks on what he sees as his opponent’s inconsistencies on these domestic positions, especially Romney’s controversial tax-cutting plan, one of the central issues in the election. The last debate, scheduled to take place on Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., will focus on foreign policy.
Obama has proved effective in town halls in the past. If he handles this showdown deftly, the format could also play to his characteristic ability to engage an audience while obliquely jabbing at opponents, as then-Sen. Obama did effectively against Hillary Rodham Clinton and other primary candidates in 2008.
Romney could also falter, as he has previously when speaking off the cuff before audiences (betting Texas Gov. Rick Perry $10,000 at a GOP primary debate, for example).
“We’re making history now, and it’s pretty exciting,” the moderator at the 1992 debate, ABC’s Carole Simpson, said at the outset of that event. Obama won’t be looking to make history on Tuesday. Progress will do.
This article originally appeared in print as "Killing Him Softly."
This article appears in the October 13, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.