09/29/2012 11:10 am ET Updated Nov 29, 2012

How President Obama Can Win the First Debate

Have you noticed lately that everyone else is getting credit for the president being in the lead except President Obama?  It was the cohesive Democratic message at the convention -- it was Bill Clinton bringing it home -- it was Mitt Romney being tone deaf about 47 percent of the American people.  In short, according to the pundits, it has been everything but the president himself that's responsible for the momentum that his re-election has now.  In fact, it's been the fundamental strategy of the president and his campaign that has allowed these other issues to resonate so loudly with the American people.  

When the president successfully shifted this election as a choice between two leaders and two directions, rather than a referendum on him and the current state of the economy, everything else fell into a complementary narrative.  Yes, there was a good story to tell about the accomplishments of the last four years, but America needed to see the bigger picture. So now when his tax rate hovers at 13 percent or when he picks the medicare-killer or when he can't decide if his Massachusetts healthcare plan is an example of his compassion or a noose around the country when it is re-labeled Obamacare, Mitt Romney falls into the trap of comparison every time.  He may not have wanted those things to define his candidacy, but President Obama is successfully making America realize that if we reject him, we would be choosing Mitt Romney.

So that is my first piece of advice for President Obama in the first debate.  Frame virtually every answer as a choice, not a defense.  Romney is smart and a skilled debater and he will try to stay vague and put the president on the defensive early.  The president must resist the temptation to lash back only with a spirited defense.  Every issue presents a choice for the American people.  And on an issue by issue basis, the people are mostly with the POTUS.

My second piece of advice is for the president to share his best self as emblematic of what is best in America.  Mitt Romney says that he only wants everyone to focus on the economic performance of the country.  But life isn't that simple or bi-nary.  If moms are worried about their reproductive healthcare or whether their rights are respected, it is hard to concentrate only on the economy.  If immigrants are worried about being discriminated against or their families deported, it adds to the stress of their economic life.  If gays and lesbians can't have their families recognized, it makes their search for meaningful work more complicated as they cobble benefits together.  If college students are worrying about the stress of their student loans rather than studying as hard as they can, their chances of pulling themselves up are more limited.  In short, America succeeds when all of its people are valued and we are all pulling in the same direction rather than re-fighting old fights or letting social issues divide us.  That is not the world that Mitt Romney inhabits, but it is the reality for most Americans. Don't be afraid to talk about America as a land of opportunity in the broadest context.

Mitt Romney has everything at stake in this first debate.  His campaign team and surrogates can't stop talking about it. The pressure will be great on him to perform.  Therefore he is certain to say things that really, really annoy the president.  So my final piece of advice is most simple: stay nice.  No "you're likable enough" comments; no jokes about dogs on top of the car; no snarking about how rich Romney is; no patronizing lecturing when he has his facts wrong; just stay nice.  One of the greatest gifts America has is a president who is kind and warm with a big smile and compassionate heart.  That is the president who will win the first debate.