Tuesday’s presidential debate, like the vice presidential debate last Thursday and the first presidential debate nearly two weeks ago, has worked both sides of the political spectrum into a veritable frenzy over the implications it has for the campaigns. Will Preisdent Obama be more aggressive? Can Romney perform as well as he did during the first debate? How is each candidate preparing? Is the “town hall” format more to Obama’s liking or to Romney’s? Whose minds will be changed as a result of the debate?

That last question trumps all others for me. As an Obama supporter, I was as disappointed as anyone else to see him lose his commanding lead in the polls. It’s frustrating to learn that Romney’s plan to transform Medicare into a voucher program is nearly guaranteed to collapse the Medicare system. What’s even more frustrating is when, after the president make that very same argument in the debate, the voucher program took the back seat in the media to discussion of who “won” the debate in terms of style and mannerism.

What’s done is done, though, and at this point in the election season, the time for proposing new policies and prescriptions to America’s ills is over. Obama may have realized this before his first debate, but he failed to realize the importance of being able to defend his record and platform while onstage with the man who wants his job. The president must use Tuesday’s debate to recover from this failure, and discuss two key issues that he hasn’t adequately addressed in order to regain voter support: His healthcare reform efforts and the state of the economic recovery.

Obama’s largest legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, isn’t the monumental failure that Romney and other Republicans have portrayed it to be, and Obama must assert this in Tuesday’s debate. He should defend the ACA as a measure that not only provides millions of Americans with access to healthcare, but also moves the country towards a more effective and fairer healthcare policy. Moreover, Obama should remind the country that though per capita healthcare spending in our country is the highest in the world, we rank 34th in average life expectancy. Those facts could provide a basis for defending the increased role of the federal government in healthcare, initiated by the ACA, by exposing the inefficiencies inherent in the country’s current healthcare system.

In terms of the impact that Obama’s policies have had on the country, there’s only one that eclipses the ACA. Though the 2009 economic stimulus package didn’t drive down unemployment to the degree predicted, it did manage to halt the worst economic downturn in nearly 80 years. That seems to have slipped the minds of a great number of Romney supporters. The stimulus also sunk a great deal of money — upwards of $100 billion — into transportation and green energy projects, two issues that can only become more prominent as this country’s infrastructure ages and the worldwide supply of oil dwindles.

Above all else, Obama needs to take a look at his running mate’s notes from the vice presidential debate and live by the top item on his list whenever he speaks about his record on the economy: “no apology.” If he can do that, he will find himself in a much better position to attack the fiscally impossible Romney plan, which claims that the businessman can somehow balance the government’s budget while cutting all marginal tax rates by 20 percent, lowering the capital gains tax, increasing military spending and sustaining funding for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

What Tuesday’s debate boils down to is this: How can Obama use it to make up the ground he has lost in the last two weeks? He no longer possesses the lead in the polls, but that doesn’t have to persist. The president’s comeback could begin just hours from now, as long as he defends what he has already done and exposes the absurdity of his opponent’s plans.

Eric Ferguson can be reached at ericff@umich.edu.

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