Obama-Romney Debate 2012: Can Cool Hand Barack Dismantle Robomitt?

WASHINGTON -– Time for some drama, Obama.

With his presidency on the line, Barack Obama at 9 p.m. on Long Island must do –- is planning to do –- what doesn’t come naturally to him: personally, directly and forcefully confront his foe.

He failed last time, and can’t afford to fail again.

The president prefers to play the cool, nice guy, at least in public. He grew up moving from culture to culture, and learned to be accepted and even admired without taking on schoolyard bullies.

Now, he can’t avoid it. Above all, he must project strength: of purpose, of belief, of determination to the right thing for average folks.

If he fails, Obama will undercut 80 years worth of Democratic (but also, in the old days, bipartisan) devotion to the ameliorative and economically constructive role of the federal government. The Romney-Ryan ticket is a heat-seeking missile headed straight at the basic assumptions of the modern social state.

In Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, the president is facing a genial-looking, seemingly polite and gentlemanly man of faith who is, in fact, a ruthlessly ambitious, shape-shifting politician with enormous wealth, even wealthier friends and a proven reputation for using whatever means necessary to destroy anyone in his path and for blithely disregarding numbers, logic and truth in the pursuit of power.

In other words, a genteel bully, who has spent a well-born lifetime getting what he wants: the girl, the Harvard degrees, the Big Money, the big houses, the governorship and now, on the second try -– he hopes –- the White House. In a little-noticed passage of his secret spiel to donors in Florida last May, Romney said that the key to victory for him was getting on the stage with Obama.

So far he has been right.

The president must show up Tuesday night, and do so with a smile on his face and a spring in his step. But more than that, he has to puncture Romney’s blithe certitude. And he has to do it in front of a town hall audience that will be the source of the initial questions. The questions will be chosen by and filtered through CNN moderator Candy Crowley, who can ask follow-ups.

It’s tricky, but not in some ways an advantageous situation for the president. He can use his genial side to try to win the small crowd of undecided Long Island voters (chosen by Gallup), as he demands that Romney defend his proposals.

In sessions at the Kings Mill Resort in Virginia, the president practiced doing so, and also connecting his administration’s accomplishments -– there in fact have been quite a few -– with his hopes and plans for what he will argue is the indispensable second phase of his tenure as the 44th president of the U.S.

I’ve been told by a person close to the debate-prep process that whatever the question, he will stress these among other points: the impossible not-to-say cynical math of Romney’s $5 trillion tax cut proposal; his proposed the “voucherization” of Medicare; running mate Rep. Paul Ryan’s (and, implicitly, Romney’s) threat to do the same to Social Security; his support for continued and even more generous rate cuts for the wealthy; the threat his budget-and-tax plans pose to the non-entitlement portion of the budget.

But, backed by some favorable (if undramatic) economic trends, the president will argue more forcefully than he has so far that the country needs a second term to continue the job. It’s a risky theme –- a majority of Americans still think the country is headed in the wrong direction –- but the president has no choice but to emphasize whatever good news there is.

There is precedent for the president taking on his foe in a town hall. He did it to Sen. John McCain in 2008. Obama did it in the manner of one of his heroes, boxer Muhammad Ali. The set-up punch was a compliment. He praised McCain for his sterling reputation as a veteran leader in foreign policy. McCain said a satisfied “thank you.” At which point, Obama hit him with the right cross, ridiculing him for singing “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” and suggesting that it might be time to wipe North Korea off the map.

It was over for McCain.

The president’s advisers and friends hope and expect THAT Obama to show up tonight.

“The president was fully prepared last time, but something happened between the practice sessions and the stage,” said the prep source, who declined to be quoted by name because he did not want to compromise privacy of the prep work.”

“That won’t happen this time,” he said. “He knows what he has to do.”

Vice Presidential Debate