The short answer is: because he’s got nothing. There is no record to run on, no argument to make for four more years. The ideology that drives him is outdated and bankrupt. He has, in fact, implemented his policies – Republicans have had little means of stopping him – and those policies are the problem.
But there’s a slightly longer answer too. Obama’s advisors will read the mainstream media assessment of the vice-presidential debate – they actually think a debate that turned women across America off of Biden was a draw, or a Biden win – and conclude that what the president needs to do is find his inner Joe Biden. Appeal to his base by going on the attack, perhaps interrupting, being visibly annoyed at the trend of Romney’s statements, and vigorously asserting untruths in the interest of racking up effective soundbites.
Petulant attack-doggery isn’t Obama’s style, so I don’t predict that he will simply adopt the Biden posture for this week’s debate. What I do think is that Obama and his handlers will be looking to enhance the president’s trademark pace and balance in public speaking (which does descend rather often into a sonorous drone) with more Biden-like spice. This won’t come naturally to Obama, any more than his occasionally put-on “black accent” sounds natural. It’s not who he is, and he won’t be good at it.
Of course, the townhall format this week can be worked to Obama’s advantage, and no doubt will be. Obama need not be thrown softballs, but he will get questions framed to suit the answers he is likely to have – and he probably won’t be troubled much with questions framed in a confrontational manner.
Romney probably will be. He will have to think more quickly on his feet, turning hostile questions into jumping-off points for getting his message across, while conveying a sense of goodwill and avoiding red herrings. If there is a “silly question” for the debaters – say, “If you were an Oscar-winning movie, which one would you be?” – it may well be barbed with false implications about conservatism, Republicans, or even Romney himself.
Romney will have more choices to make in his approach and substance. There are a lot of things he could say; what will be the most effective? We can reasonably suppose he will perform again as well as he did in Debate 1.
Obama doesn’t have those choices, because he’s trying to stay in office – to tend cronies and inflict ideological constraints on the people – using arguments that don’t accurately represent what he’s been doing for nearly four years. He has no intention of changing course, regardless of what the current course is inflicting on the American people. Yet he can’t argue in the campaign for his current course – at least not to anyone but his base – because it is so ridden with failure and the scent of corruption. Americans continue to turn against his signature legislation, ObamaCare, and even the New York Times is beginning to doubt the effectiveness of his foreign policy.
So we can expect to hear more about Romney giving a “$5 trillion tax break” to the richest Americans, along with the other canards about Romney-Ryan policy (e.g., tossing Grandma off the cliff) being trotted out over and over by the Obama campaign. These mendacious soundbites have lost their impact, but what else does Obama have? Personal attacks on Romney?
If the president makes a decision on retaliating in Libya before Tuesday night, he may be able to speak at the debate from a perspective of putative decisiveness, the commander-in-chief moving forces around. A new line of tactical operations would blunt Romney’s justifiable criticism of how the White House has handled the whole matter. I don’t foresee this dynamic winning the debate for Obama – a belated military response has little hope of trumping the public’s nearer-to-home concern about the US economy, the national debt, and constitutional freedoms – but if it comes off, it will probably be gratifying for his Amen corner in the MSM.
Gratifying them is not enough, however. Whether he plays to his base or the MSM, Obama will not be playing to the constituency that matters: the majority of likely voters. His appeal to that constituency in 2008 depended on his being an unknown quantity, and that’s what he no longer is. Obama doesn’t have any more tricks in his bag. This is it.