Let's give Mitt Romney credit. He came to the first debate ready, prepared and fighting trim. He won the debate. Decisively. Before the debate, President Obama had achieved a significant advantage. After the debate, the gap had closed. The fondest wish of most media has come true. We have a horse race that will be contested to the finish line.
Let's give Obama credit, though: the jobs report last week included significant and politically important good news. The jobless rate fell to 7.8 percent at a time when more workers, not fewer, joined the workforce. The housing industry, essential for the next morning in America to commence, is clearly on the mend. Consumer confidence is strong. The stock market has soared since the president took office. The value of 401(k) plans, which are vital to the security of many millions of Americans, has skyrocketed along with markets.
Of course, the economy still faces challenges, but major companies are increasing hiring for the holiday season above the levels of last year. Macy's, Target, Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us join a long list of companies whose confidence has inspired them to substantial holiday hiring. They are doing their part for America. The economy is coming back.
The mission for the president and Democrats, as the debates continue and the closing days of the campaign approach, is to offer the voters a narrative that is true, compelling and appealing about the successes of the president in his first term and the achievements the president offers for a second term.
For the president and Democrats, the mission is to understand and build on the reasons for the very real and significant bounce that lifted them after the Democratic convention.
The brilliant and historically important speech of former President Clinton made a powerful and credible case for the successes that Obama has achieved in first avoiding a new global depression after the disaster he inherited from his Republican predecessor, and initiating the economic recovery that has begun to gather steam with strong consumer confidence, improved housing markets, rising 401(k) plans, strengthened financial markets and the latest decline in joblessness.
Clinton has unparalleled credibility as the only living former president who is fondly remembered for achieving outstanding economic prosperity and success, and unparalleled skills in communicating a powerful and optimistic narrative about the successes Obama has achieved, the continued success he will achieve if reelected and the danger of reliving the disasters of the Bush years if the powers of the presidency are returned to the Republicans who caused the great financial crash.
The Democratic convention also lifted the president and Democrats because of the passionate, humane and uplifting speech by first lady Michelle Obama, and the potent and pointed speech by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), which dramatized how the president has improved American security and drew a contrast with the dangers to our security of the bellicose brand of neoconservative military policies championed by Romney.
The coming debate will have a town-hall meeting format that creates a different communications vehicle than other debate formats. A town-hall meeting debate offers the president a golden moment to offer his narrative about the Bush years, the Obama first term and the future of a second Obama term that will focus on his vision and agenda -- and then, and only then, offer the contrast with Romney.
The president could discuss at some length why Clinton was successful and how the economy has indeed improved since he succeeded President George W. Bush. He could discuss how Clinton can help work with Republicans in Congress, who praise him so often it will be hard for them to resist, in taming the deficit and creating more jobs.
Obama can talk about the shared sacrifice and shared prosperity that is the Democratic tradition. He can and should contrast this, in a conversational tone, with the insulting Romney comments about the 47 percent, which Romney repeated and doubled-down on for many days, and which represent the policies that Romney and Republicans stand for.
Obama can discuss the role of commander in chief, and the challenges of a world that can't be solved by the bellicose speeches of those who would start wars recklessly.
Obama should talk about what he has learned in the presidency, the mistakes he has made and the lessons he learned from those mistakes, and the achievements he has had, and the lessons he has learned from those successes.
I would like to see the president dramatically escalate his positive television ads about his own vision, achievements and agenda. He should not be shy about detailing in the debates the economic successes I mention in this column, the optimism he believes in and the pathway to more prosperity that he, Vice President Biden, Clinton and Democrats in Congress will champion in a second term.
Obama does recognize the pain that afflicts too many Americans, but he should also be the champion of an agenda of optimism, aspiration and achievement that will be the hallmark of a second Obama term.
The president should make clear that our exceptionalism is not how wealthy the few become, but how much prosperity is created and shared by the many, and the fairness and justice and decency we stand for.
Obama should state that Republicans bear major responsibility for the problems he inherited, and seem to politically relish the pain that they did so much to create, but even more important, the president has a good narrative to offer, and a good story to tell, and he should tell it with confidence, optimism and vigor.
A version of this column was originally published at The Hill.