President Obama has described this election as a “make-or-break moment for the middle class.” The last three weeks of the election are now a make-or-break moment for Obama’s campaign. He built a commanding lead following the Democratic convention and the release of Romney’s 47 percent’s video by neutralizing Romney’s advantage on the economy. But, following the first presidential debate, some polls are showing that Americans once again trust Romney to do a better job of handling the economy—possibly because Obama failed to shred Romney’s tax cuts for the wealthy or “fuzzy” jobs plan, and curiously didn’t mention his unpopular tenure at Bain.

The unexpectedly strong jobs report for last month—where the unemployment rate fell below 8 percent and 86,000 jobs were added through revisions in July and August (on top of revisions adding 386,000 jobs from April 2011 to March 2012)—should’ve stopped the bleeding for Obama. The unemployment rate is now where it was when Obama took office, a major accomplishment considering the economic crisis he inherited and one that bolsters his argument that the country is on the right track. Jobless claims fell to 339,000 last week, the lowest since February 2008. Consumer confidence is at its highest in five years. The latest economic data strongly undercuts the central rationale for Romney’s candidacy—that “Obama isn’t working.” But instead of touting the president’s accomplishments and highlighting his plan to create 2 million new jobs through the American Jobs Act, the Obama campaign instead attacked Romney for wanting to axe Big Bird in the immediate aftermath of the debate.

The last four years have taught us that if Obama doesn’t forcefully make the case for his own policies, no one else will (he can only rely on Bill Clinton so many times). In the last three weeks of the race, the president needs to draw a simple contrast with Romney on the economy: Obama has a plan to create 2 million new jobs while Romney not only doesn’t have a credible jobs plan, but is actually advocating ideas that would make the economy worse. (See Paul Krugman’s “Five Points To Nowhere.” Romney claims his five-point plan would create 12 million new jobs, but the economy is already projected to add that many jobs over the next four years.) That distinction didn’t come across clearly in the first debate and Obama will have a missed a huge opportunity if voters don’t understand this crucial difference between the candidates in the next presidential debate.

“The president needs to say ‘the economy is starting to recover, but that’s not good enough,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who conducted focus groups with undecided voters during the first debate in Denver. “‘We need to fight, fight, fight every day until the middle class is back.’”

Secondly, the president needs to highlight how Romney’s 47 percent comment reveals how a Romney Administration would govern. The fact that Romney wrongly believes that 47 percent of Americans are “dependent on the government,” means he won’t hesitate to slash the social safety that so many Americans rely on, something his vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan has led the charge to do. Obama should make clear that he will protect and strengthen programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security while Romney would dismantle them. (It would also behoove Obama to mention that Romney’s chief economics adviser, Glenn Hubbard, was the “principal architect of the Bush tax cuts,” according to the New York Times.) “Obama needs to tell voters some specific things he’s doing to do and then contrast that with what Romney-Ryan will do,” says Lake.

To that end, here are some crucial insights from a recent Democracy Corps survey by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg:

Single women, people of color and young people — the Rising American Electorate — voted for change in 2008.

According to this survey and focus groups, Obama can get to 2008 levels when he makes Romney own ‘the 47 percent’ and offers a robust message to make this country work for the middle class again – with more punch and choice, more values, more on the consequences of unequal power, and above all, big policy choices that go well beyond the thin rhetoric of the first debate.

In his “closing argument” TV ad, Obama called for a “new economic patriotism” that creates economic opportunity, protects the advances of the New Deal and Great Society, and asks the most fortunate in our society to contribute their fair share. “That ad tests off the charts,” says Lake. The public backs Obama’s vision of strength in numbers over Romney’s America where everyone is on their own. According to Greg Sargent, 72 percent of unmarried women, a crucial swing group, told Greenberg this message made them more likely to support Obama:

When I look at our great challenges, I say, we’re all in this together. But the Republicans say, you are your own. Well that’s given us a country of just rich and poor and the well-connected using their power to get more tax cuts and breaks. Well, we need to make our country work for the middle class again. Clean up lobbyists and big money. Let’s keep taxes low for the middle class and small businesses and use the budget to help the middle class by seriously investing in education, rebuilding America, and making sure Medicare is there.

But voters need to hear that clear choice. Instead of running away from the economy, as the conventional wisdom suggested Obama had to do when he launched his re-election bid, Obama should be forcefully campaigning on the progress made so far and the unfinished work still left to do.

UPDATE: Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler gives Romney "four Pinocchios" for the candidate's bogus claims about his jobs plan. "Mitt Romney's 'new math' for jobs plan doesn't add up," Kessler writes.

For more economic election coverage, check out Josh Eidelson's "On the Road With Working America."