10/16/2012 09:34 am ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

Obama's Big Choice

The president has a fundamental choice he has to make going into tonight's debate and the entire three weeks left in this campaign. It is obvious that his head has to be in the game tonight more than it was in the first debate; that he has to be more aggressive in calling out Romney's obvious lies and prevarications; that he has to do a better job of showing people the difference in his and Romney's values and philosophy; that his language has to be clearer and crisper than the first time around. Any good debate coaches can help him with those things, and I'm sure Obama's own fiercely competitive nature will make sure that he does all that far better than in round one. I think the difference between those two performances will be so dramatic that the perception will be that he did great in this debate no matter what else happens.

Even assuming that happens, though, Obama has a very big choice to make in this debate, a choice that will matter a great deal to whether he wins re-election. The choice is all about how he projects what has happened in the first term and what will happen in a second. Democracy Corps has just come out with an incredibly important new memo which deals with this choice. What the authors suggest is that the loss in the last debate, and the resulting bigger shift in this election, came not just from Romney's strong performance and Etch A Sketch move to sounding like a Democrat, and not just from Obama's weak performance and failure to effectively push back on Romney, but from Obama's bigger framing. Here's the money paragraph:

In debate dial-meters conducted by Democracy Corps for Women's Voices. Women Vote Action Fund during the debate, Obama lost the attention of independents and unmarried women when he spoke about economic progress or talked about the progress of the last four years. With most of the president's surrogates saying, "give him more time to finish the job" and with the president closing the debate almost making the same small offer, Romney got the opportunity to be heard as the voice of change.

President Obama, like my old boss President Clinton in the '94 cycle, wants to convince people that things really are getting steadily better, but voters just aren't feeling it, and this dynamic is rapidly becoming the biggest barrier to his winning re-election. It is the most natural instinct in the world for a politician to brag about the good things they think they've done, but if you do too much of it when people are feeling bad about how things have gone, it makes you sound out of touch. This was exactly how Obama sounded for much of the first debate.

The challenge is that an incumbent president running for re-election can't walk away from his first term, and I don't think the president should. He saved the American auto industry. His health care bill set the stage for a long term solution for one of our country's most intractable long term economic problems. His financial reform bill accomplished some important first steps in re-regulating Wall Street after decades of badly misguided deregulation. He took the bank middlemen out of the business of guaranteeing government paid-for student loans, and used the savings to put more money into those loans. He's made major investments in the energy sources, and jobs, of the future. All of these things are admirable and popular with the American public, with the partial exception of health care reform, which is getting more popular all the time. And these are big important things that will really matter for the future of the American economy.

What Obama should be arguing is that in his first term he was faced with huge challenges, and responded by doing big things that will matter in the long haul. He should be making the case that in a second term, he is going to think big about our problems, and work to solve the big things that are still plaguing the middle class. He should be laying out an ambitious agenda for another term. It's fine to claim credit for stabilizing an economy in free fall, but what he shouldn't do in the second debate is what he did in the first, which is to make a complicated numbers-filled argument as to how things aren't so bad and that we should just stay the course.

The other part of Obama's choice is this, which is go back to talking about Democratic vs. Republican values the way we did at the Democratic convention, and the way we did in the period between the release of the 47 percent video and the first debate. We were kicking the Republicans' butt in that values debate, it was why we had opened up a lead, and we desperately need to go back to what was working. Obama should talk about the difference between Romney's 47 percent vision for America, and an America where we are all in this together, an America where we look out for each other and invest in each other and help each other succeed. It's not a numbers argument or a policy argument, but it is the most fundamental divide the two parties and tickets have. It's an argument that the numbers and policy wonk first debate Obama never made, and he needs to make it tonight.

President Obama will be better in this debate, I have no doubt about it. And with the strong Obama field operation, we can win this election even if it stays tight. But to start pulling away again, Obama needs to move away from the language in the first debate about how well things are going economically, because voters just aren't feeling it. Instead, he needs to keep the conversation focused on the big changes he wants to make in the future in order to make our country's economic engine, our middle class, start running strong again. And he needs to remind people of the very big and important difference between his values and Mitt Romney's.