I just had on MSNBC (what...you were expecting Fox News?) with my preferred method of the sound off as I started writing this, and I saw Michelle Obama yammering about something over the chyron, "Great Expectations." Seriously, MSNBC? At least when it comes to President Obama and debates, I think the hour of the great expectations is long passed. The truth is that his 2008 debate performance was pretty mediocre, too, but his opponent John "That one!" McCain was equally lost. What's more, the Atlantic's Molly Ball, in a much-discussed piece, makes the argument that Obama's been "off his game" (assuming he once had one) for weeks now. Who knows why that is? Maybe the pressure....of living with his mother-in-law...finally got to him after four years.
So what should Obama do tonight? The worst thing is to raise "great expectations" that he's going to come out a completely different man -- because that's just not going to happen. He does need to a better job explaining, in his own plodding way, where the country's been the last 12 years and what could go wrong if America's low-information voters pick the call-in winner of "Debating With The Stars."
He should also take a page from the book of...ahem..Ronald Reagan. In 1984, a befuddled Gipper looked older than his 73 years in his first debate with Walter Mondale, and he was beaten so badly it nearly unraveled his carefully-crafted "Morning in America" strategy. In the second debate, he famously joked that "I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." The gambit worked -- even though the truth was that Reagan's overall performance wasn't that great in the second debate, merely good enough.
If I were in President Obama's often-looked-down-at shoes, I'd look into the camera (because that alone would be progress!) and just admit it: "I should have done better last time -- not for me, but for the millions of people who've donated their time or their money for my campaign, and for the entire nation I've been honored to serve as president. You know, I wasn't the president of my high school debate club..maybe I knew even then that wasn't my thing. But running a country is more than a debate society..."
He then needs to find a more politically correct way to ask America if it really wants to pick the guy who smiles more and looks into the camera better...so he can spend four years cutting taxes for the rich, threatening 50 years of progress on women's rights and voting rights and returning to a reckless neocon foreign policy. If he does that, he'll still probably "lose the debate" on style points. But maybe he'll win just enough for the millions of people who don't want to go back to the 2000s... or the 1890s.