BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Rahm Emanuel has often told the story, when early in his days as White House chief of staff, he mused aloud to President Barack Obama about the tough hand they'd been dealt. "Sir, this would be a lot easier if you didn't have a giant recession and two wars to deal with," he said.
To which Obama is said to have replied, "Rahm, if it weren't for the recession and the two wars, we wouldn't be here in the first place."
Four years later, the president may be denied a second term because of the lingering consequences of the same forces that got him elected -- and his own failures to master them fully.
After walking all over the president in the first debate and counter-punching his way to survival in the second, Republican nominee Mitt Romney has matched Obama in popularity polls and on projected Electoral College maps. More ominously for the president, Romney now has a personal "favorability" rating that matches Obama's. Timing is everything in politics, and Romney is peaking at just the right moment.
Obama's luck, on the other hand, seems to be running out, and at a very bad time: As he prepares for the final debate with Romney, he is looking ahead to the last two weeks of a 2012 campaign in which Romney's allies will have more money and more paths to an Electoral College win.
As luck would have it, tonight's debate here at Lynn University at 9 p.m. EDT, moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS, is about foreign policy: once, but no longer, an area of acknowledged strength for a president dealing with the toughest economy in decades.
It was President George W. Bush, not Obama, who launched the fateful project of toppling Sunni strong men in the Middle East in the name of spreading freedom and democracy. That grand strategy, and the regional leaders' inability to adapt to it, has helped turn the Middle East into a more uncontrollable, dangerous, unpredictable place; fear and chaos in countries such as Syria, Egypt and Lebanon are winning out over hope. And although the man who helped to set that process in motion was Bush, Republicans will try tonight to pin the blame on Obama.
The president's answer is clear: Osama Bin Laden was killed under his watch, he managed the draw down troop levels in Iraq and has pledged to do the same in Afghanistan. He can also point out that the American homeland has not been attacked on his watch -- and that his administration has foiled numerous plots to do so.
That, in turn, is why the sustained, war-like attack on the American compound in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, when U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others were killed, looms so large over tonight's debate -- and Obama's fate.
The incident itself has not been a centerpiece of national concern: Voters care about jobs and the economy here, not the souks of the Middle East. But the administration's handling of the incident and the events leading up to it -- not to mention the various conflicting stories afterward about what happened -- have drawn legitimate scrutiny.
It is the kind of story tailor-made for Romney, whose preferred mode in debates has been one of attack. Schieffer, a solid newsman of the old school, is likely to be wary of overdoing a topic that could benefit Romney, but he will want to probe the matter in depth. If Schieffer asks -- and he will -- righteous indignation from the president in defense of himself and his administration may not play well with voters, even if Obama has a new CIA report to back up his narrative.
The president's account of events in distant Benghazi -- a place most Americans had never heard of -- may well decide who "wins" the debate. If Obama can't be convincing, he'll lose.
For the president, the timing is not in his favor.