The Presidency changes everyone. You cannot sit in that office day after day and cycle through the endless crises and forced compromises and come away the same as you went in. One of the silliest arguments of this campaign is that Mitt Romney is better prepared to be President today than Barack Obama was four years ago. Yes, but Barack Obama has been and still is President. He has changed. And it’s time for him to explain to the American people why the changed Barack Obama is the right choice for the next four years.
To do that, President Obama needs to make sure that a part of him was left behind at the Denver debate. He cannot dismiss Mitt Romney tonight with insincere grins and ironic asides. He cannot be the commentator in chief or observer in chief. He needs to explain, in simple, stark, un-ironic tones, what it means to be President day by day.
And he needs to explain why there’s no big, ambitious agenda for his second term: because there’s plenty left to accomplish from the first term. There was a depression to avert, health care legislation to enact, a war in Iraq to wind down and a stepped-up battle with Al Qaeda to execute. His vision has not changed. But his understanding of what it will take — and how long it will take — to fully enact his plans has changed with the times.
Also the President needs to explain to the American people why this very agreeable fellow named Mitt is the wrong person for our times. It’s true that Mitt tacked to the left when dealing with a very liberal Massachusetts legislature. And then he tacked sharply to the right when trying to woo a very conservative Republican primary electorate. But bipartisanship isn’t about being all things to all people. It’s about advocating on behalf of the national interest to politicians whose livelihood depends on taking care of parochial interests. A truly effective and bipartisan President must convince a winning coalition to risk their political futures for something bigger and more important than their next election. When has Mitt Romney ever risked his own political future for something bigger than himself? When has he ever stood up for an unpopular idea? Absent political courage and genuine principles, how will Mitt Romney ever convince another politician to take a patriotic risk?
In the first Presidential debate, Barack Obama tried to be someone the Presidency had already worn away. He cannot win on polite, calm charm anymore. A President is expected to lead. And if President Obama can make clear in the second debate that there are principles he’s willing to lose this election fighting for, he will put his campaign back on a path to re-election.
The former chief speechwriter for Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Dan Conley is a Chicago-based professional speechwriter and frequent op-ed contributor to major national publications.