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Don't Overract, Mr. President -- That Path Leads to the Dark Side

10/15/2012 04:20 pm 16:20:01 | Updated Dec 15, 2012

Progressives have spent the last week crouching in the windowsill in tears, threatening the crowd below that they're going to end it. It's a little like Kate and Leo on the back of the Titanic: everyone knows they're not going to jump; the waters of politics are cold and icy below the U.S.S. Barack, so let's climb back over the railing and finish the movie, shall we?

"Would you calm down? There are still two debates left, and we've still got that scene in the car!"

Talked down a bit by Joe Biden's spirited debate performance -- "Malarkey!" -- the left is mostly hoping that Barack Obama is going to come out swinging like Ivan Drago on Tuesday. The conventional wisdom of Democrats is that the President needs to assault Mitt Romney from every angle. Obama supporter and expert campaign strategist Michael Moore tweeted it best: "Is Bill Clinton coming in to sub for the next quarter? O! Wake up! Attack!"

Granted, the president isn't a German Shepherd, but "attack!" would certainly seem be the simplest adjustment for Tuesday: stuff the words "Bain Capital," "47 percent," "roof-surfing dogs," and "monopoly man" into his opening statement, then hold up the classified bin Laden kill-shot photo for the camera, before tossing it at Mitt's grill.

Here's a different, probably unpopular opinion: Getting too aggressive is the biggest mistake Obama could make.

Look, I get it. The president's performance last week was anemic -- maybe even worse than W.'s opening spat with Kerry in 2004. In the MSNBC coverage following last week's bloodbath, Chris Matthews's face looked like Simba's after Mufasa got stampeded to death by wildebeests.

Chris was as traumatized as the innocent children at their first Lion King showing.

But if there's one quality that Barack Obama hasn't lost over the last four years, it's his preternatural sense of serene calm. Voters, particularly independents, value even-keeled civility in a president. Over the course of his term, Obama has become a lot of things that his acolytes never wished to see--uninspiring, frustrated, decidedly human in his powers--but two things he's never appeared are rudderless and desperate; the outward trappings of sober rationality have yet to desert him in the face of adversity.

I supported Hillary in the '08 primaries, and if there's one thing I found impressive about her opponent, it was his refusal to overreact when events didn't break his way. When Obama was trailing Clinton by 20 points in the national polls leading up to Iowa, donors urged him to get hostile, to lob grenades, to shake things up in the debates. He refused to change course, and instead delivered a rousing speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner that proved pivotal in the race, leaving the anti-Clinton hatchet-wielding to the press and patron saint of virtue John Edwards.

When McCain/Palin shot out to a lead following the Republican Convention, progressives again began to freak out and press for more negativity. Rachel Maddow looked like the female passenger in Airplane when the captain asks if anyone knows how to fly a plane. Yet Obama remained unruffled, and it was instead his reassuring, zen-like response to the economic crisis that eventually propelled him home.

Even in the stagnant economy of his first term, likeability polls have consistently shown a lingering affection for the President and kept his approval rating afloat like a life preserver. The man's comforting stability is one of the reasons why.

Yet Obama's never quite been embarrassed like he was last week, and it will be fascinating to see if the magazine covers of empty podiums and SNL parodies prompt him to lose his composure and do what he's always resisted doing in the past: descend into desperate overreaction.

If so, he's in trouble. The president has never been good at the negative stuff, and his brief forays into partisan onslaught -- the in-person ambush of Paul Ryan's budget proposal comes to mind--have consistently come off as forced and ineffective. By now, we know who Obama is: a thoughtful, civil politician who seeks to lift us up, and eschews confrontation at every turn.

So, if on Tuesday, he greets the audience in front of that weird, wall calligraphy on debate sets that nobody can read, then immediately pivots to scorch Romney like a fire-breathing dragon, here's a spoiler alert: It's going to seem awkward and out of place, like in those creepy Captain Morgan commercials where the pirate breaks into the 18th century drawing rooms and escorts chicks to his underground lair of debauchery. Nobody wants Obama to go there -- deep down, the country wants to think of him as a prince, not some buccaneer dragooning the electorate.

Maybe Clinton could get away with this, but not Obama.

But legions of left-leaning pundits are now urging Obama to follow Biden's performance and knock the snot out of the Mittens. Due respect, that's a fiasco waiting to happen. The VP's a passionate, energetic figure, but so is my grandpa at Thanksgiving. He made excellent substantive points, but if you only showed half the split-screen, viewers would've assumed he was laughing at one of Ryan's adorable, tiny children that the Wisconsin congressman always ends up hugging.

The president ain't grandpa; he's dad, sitting at the head of the table, and if he lectures Romney with the same contemptuous, disgusted look Biden proudly sported -- if he responds, as Biden did, to an opening question about his murdered ambassador in Libya by immediately going after the opposing ticket -- there's going to be more than eye-rolling amongst swing voters.

Tuesday is going to be scrutinized through stained glass, not viewed in isolation. Unless something unexpected and bananas happens, like the Gangnam style dude charging the stage, the press narrative will inevitably be "Obama responds to debacle by ______." You really don't want that space filled in with "transforming into Huey Long."

I'm not sure we'll ever know why Obama had less energy last week than the Ben Stein teacher in Ferris Bueller, but he did. Nevertheless, he doesn't need to start a brawl. It will look desperate and insecure. He simply must defend his record with more vigor; and respond to Romney's barbs with something more dynamic than playing the truth police and citing tax policy studies that no voter's every heard of.

To finish with an apt, but startlingly nerdy analogy: George Lucas was originally going to title his third Star Wars film Revenge of the Jedi. Then it hit the director: Jedis are peaceful heroes unacquainted with emotions like anger, resentment, and hate. Their innate make-up, their very power, comes from a harmony with their surroundings. "Revenge" is the way of the dark-side of the force, so Lucas changed the title to Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.

2012's Episode I was "Attack of the Mittens," and Episode II is coming. For better or worse, President Obama has the temperament and talents of a Jedi, and he would do well to heed Lucas's wisdom when he walks onto the stage Tuesday. Leave the rage, the bitterness, the vengeance at the door. Fighting dirty haymakers with dirty haymakers is always tempting at times like this. But the dark side of politics always is.

"These aren't the fiscal policies you're looking for. Move along..."