WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — President Barack Obama appears amply aware that he fumbled badly during a debate two weeks ago in Denver, but he’s not the only one looking for redemption: Obama’s staff, blamed in part for his weak preparation, for a flawed plan, and for a lame post-debate effort are also seeking a do-over.
The most obvious — and critical — flaw in the Denver debate was Obama’s performance, and aides say they’ve prepared him intensely not to repeat it. They’ve played him the tape of the Denver debacle, examined his facial expressions and overall body language, and prepared for how to personally engage a live audience of questioners.
Tuesday’s town hall-style forum at Hofstra University on Long Island, NY is a format in which Obama in 2008 thrived, as the format’s king, John McCain, stumbled. Four years ago Obama managed to draw a connection with both the questioner and the audience at home. Aides say they expect this stage to be more comfortable, since he’s not interacting with just Romney.
There is also a new plan. Two weeks ago, Obama tried to stay above the fray, backing down from nearly every attack he and his campaign have been firing at Romney by proxy — both on television and in solo rallies across the country. Tuesday at Hofstra, will throw all the punches he pulled two weeks ago, his aides promise. Romney’s tax rate? Check. The 47% video? He’ll work it in there. Osama bin Laden? You can bet on it.
Obama is “prepared to make sure every voter out there understands the truth about Romney’s policies if he tries to obscure them,” Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt told BuzzFeed.
“[It] won't be a clean opportunity for Romney to claim he doesn't know anything about a $5 trillion tax cut weighted towards the wealthiest,” he added, as an example.
Aides have also changed the expectations game. Obama is “excited” and upbeat about debating Romney, traveling press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday. He’ll be “firm, but respectful,” in dealing with Romney. This contrasts with her joking pronouncement before the debate that Obama could potentially fall off the stage. In a realization that nobody would allow the White House to lower expectations for the sitting president in a debate about the position he currently inhabits — and a reflection of the fact that Obama can’t afford another brutal loss — his aides have no choice but to remain upbeat.
Obama’s staff has also adjusted its own, sometimes overconfident, perspective. In the days after the first debate, Obama aides blamed themselves, as well as the president, for his failure, and pledged not to let it happen again.
The vaunted Chicago media operation was caught flat-footed without a response to the first debate, waiting more than 10 minutes to enter the spin room and then only sending in five top campaign aides. Others, like Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, ventured in for TV hits mostly undetected, without the traditional signs blaring their names.
The following morning it was David Axelrod and other aides on TV to put out the fire, instead of the usual round of surrogates claiming victory.
By the vice presidential debate Democrats were ready to flood the zone, with members of congress and others waiting for Biden to leave the stage before barging into the room to testify to a “decisive” win.
A similarly intensive effort is planned after tonight’s debate, with a full cast of 22 for the spin room and Vice President Joe Biden lined up for the three network morning shows.
“We know we lost the post-debate,” said one Chicago aide. “The media spun a narrative that we got crushed and we didn’t do anything to stop it until it was too late.”