Barack Obama won the hope vote in 2008. Now, to keep the White House, President Obama needs to win back the disappointed.
Michael Jones is one of them. Jones, one of the questioners during Tuesday night's debate, wanted to know what the president has done to earn his support in 2012. This time around, "I'm not that optimistic," said Jones.
Obama's answer to a critical voter concern was one of his weakest and one of challenger Mitt Romney's strongest. It's partly because Obama never got a chance to respond to his rival, but also because Obama didn't seize the opportunity when Jones first presented to him.
You could picture Bill Clinton telling the citizen-questioner in deeply personal terms how hard he is working on his behalf and how hard he would continue to work in a second term. Candidate Clinton showed how that's done in a 1992 town hall debate that came to symbolize his unique ability to connect viscerally with ordinary people — even as it illustrated President George H.W. Bush's inability to do so.
Obama was not tone deaf like Bush in this reprise of a feel-my-pain moment. But he fell short of talking all those disappointed voters across the country back to at least resignation that he is the better choice.
"We've gone through a tough four years," he told Jones, before listing accomplishments like cutting taxes for middle class families, health care reform, bringing about the death of Osama bin Laden, reining in Wall Street excesses, and saving the auto industry.
"Now does that mean you're not struggling? Absolutely not," he said, before mentioning his plan to advance manufacturing and education and reduce the deficit "in a sensible way."
It was more an appeal to the head than the heart, and Obama needs to win back hearts from a country weary of a weak recovery.
Then the debate audience heard from Romney, who swooped in with his version of economic reality.
"I think you know better," he told Jones. "I think you know that these last four years haven't been so good as the president just described," he said, predicting four more years of that same not-so-great feeling.
Romney also listed what he called Obama's unfulfilled promises, such as bringing unemployment down to 5.4 percent, reforming Medicare and Social Security, and cutting the deficit in half. The difference between the unemployment rate promised and delivered "means 9 million Americans without work," said Romney.
"The president wants to do well," he added. "But the policies he's put in place from Obamacare to Dodd-Frank to his tax policies to his regulatory policies, these policies combined have not let this economy take off and grow like it could have.'' There are more people in poverty and more on food stamps, Romney also reminded the audience.
This comes from a candidate who is stuck with a videotape from the campaign trail that has him writing off as freeloaders the poor he now claims to care about. But just like Clinton in 1992, Romney has the advantage of a challenger taking on an incumbent president in a tepid economy.
Romney is no Clinton — but he still got away with a litany of statistics that undercut Obama's accomplishments. And he never had to face rebuttal from Obama, as moderator Candy Crowley moved them along to another topic.
On Tuesday night, Obama accomplished his basic goal: surviving. He rallied from a bad performance in Denver to show up at Hofstra University and take the fight to Romney. But he has not yet won the most important arguments about why he deserves four more years. What's his economic vision? How is it different from what he tried during his first term? What's in a second Obama term for the not-so-optimistic?
A CNN poll taken immediately after the debate gave the president the edge as overall winner over Romney, 46 percent to 39 percent. Obama was also seen as more likeable. But Romney was viewed as a stronger leader and better able to handle the economy, taxes, and the budget deficit.
Voters, disappointed with Obama, are still open to buying from Romney the 2012 version of what they bought four years ago — hope that might not add up.
Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at Joan_Vennochi.