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At second debate, Obama must defend his record

There’s something about Barack Obama that makes people feel the need to protect him. “President Obama, I’ve got your back,” declared the most popular T-shirt being hawked outside the Democratic convention. Michelle Obama has played the role of defender in some settings, Bill Clinton in others. Deval Patrick’s biggest applause line while campaigning for Obama is, “I will not see him bullied out of office.”

Usually, these expressions of bodyguard-like support do not make Obama seem weak, but rather special — “the one,” in the words of another eager blocker, Oprah Winfrey. It’s as if all these people recognized something finer-grained in Obama’s sensibility, and vowed to keep him from being broken. But lately it’s become obvious that there’s another reason all these people come to his defense: Obama isn’t comfortable defending himself. If others don’t rise to the occasion, like the super-caffeinated Joe Biden last week, then the administration is vulnerable.

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That much was clear from Obama’s performance in his first debate with his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. Romney, who tussled last winter with such renowned attack dogs as Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann, showed up ready to rumble. Obama barely showed up. Tonight, when the two meet again, Obama owes it to his supporters to abandon his reticence and stand strongly behind his policies. He should be prepared to take credit for big accomplishments like preventing a depression, ending a war, and extending health insurance to 30 million more people — and to speak of them in such basic terms.

While voters will make allowances for candidates’ differing personalities, they won’t have much patience for a leader who stands in soldier-like silence while his decisions are maligned. It’s hard to imagine what Obama’s aides are advising him to do this week; throwing a few punches at Romney early on might send a signal to those looking for more of a warrior spirit. But Obama’s political persona doesn’t allow for Biden levels of emotionalism, and advancing too deep into the trenches won’t serve him well — he wants to keep some of that aura of specialness, of being above the fray.

For Romney, who earned a lot of second looks in the first debate, the challenge is different. Having shown his fighting spirit, he needs to put more flesh on his plans for turning around the economy. He spent much of the first debate dispelling perceptions of him as an advocate for the rich, an apostle for radical conservatism. That work is done. But he still must convince voters that he has a plan, and that it’s workable.

Still, the bigger story will be Obama. Can the coolest of politicians show a little heat? America is waiting.

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