President Obama's most ardent backers would like to see him give Mitt Romney a good hiding in Tuesday night’s debate. Wallop the challenger for a tax plan that doesn't add up. Expose him as the rich investor who disdains the "47%."
Obama may dish out some of that punishment, but he will be more intent, first, on building a case for his economic policies and for "some very positive economic signs" that have begun to emerge in recent weeks, said one of the president’s campaign strategists.
It is the president's strategy, not the challenger's, that has become the focus of endless speculation in the nearly two weeks since critics widely gave Romney the victory in their first debate, on Oct. 3. Romney has been perceived as needing to stay on course while it's Obama scrambling to gain equilibrium.
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Some election analysts have been saying for months that Obama's biggest challenge is accounting for the economy's halting recovery. The assumption has been that conditions are so bad that his best hope is changing the subject.
But an uptick in several economic indicators, and the mood of many Americans, makes it easier for the president to argue against a change of course, said the strategist, who asked not to be named discussing the campaign’s internal discussions.
Obama will doubtless point during Tuesday night's debate to the unemployment rate dipping below 8% last month, to 7.8%, for the first time in four years. But he might also mention a jump in manufacturing, a five-year low in foreclosures and improvement in buyer attitudes.
A recent consumer sentiment survey by the University of Michigan showed a reading of 83.1 for October, up from 78.3 in September and the highest measure since September 2007.
"What we are looking to do now is make our case about where we want to take the country," said the Obama advisor, "and do it with some hope, because there is some good evidence that this is working. We have a little bit of lift."
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A new advertisement released by the Obama campaign this week makes the case that average Americans feel that lift.
The 30-second spot, called "Main Street," has people talking about improvements they see firsthand.
A woman describes pulling into work, and the change from a once nearly-empty parking lot to one that is full of cars. Another woman talks about her company adding a second shift. She adds: "We have a future at our plant now.”
The ad ends with two men speaking on camera. "President Obama does get what people need and that's jobs and the opportunity to help themselves," says the first. The other concludes: "Stick with this guy. He will move us forward."
Obama must "thread the needle" -- being positive but not overstating the upswing, said the advisor, who added: "Nobody is playing 'Happy Days Are Here Again.' This is not to say anyone is satisfied with the economy the way it is or will be over-blowing the progress. Just that we are headed in the right direction."
Romney clearly will argue that Obama has not done nearly enough and that mild progress does not make up for the millions out of work, including those who have stopped looking for jobs. The only prospect for a better economic trajectory is to change presidents, the Republican will say.
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Obama will counter with his previous criticisms of the Romney program -- chiefly that it asks voters to trust Romney to belatedly fill in many details, such as which tax loopholes the Republican would close and how much revenue that would produce, after the election.
But those counter-punches will come only after Obama has made more of a case for what he believes.
"The key is going to be making sure that people are grounded with the core direction he is advocating and the optimism he brings to that," said the Obama advisor. "Once he has his feet firmly planted on that ground, he can pivot to take on other issues from a bunch of different angles."
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