The problem for Obama is not that his performance was disastrous, but rather that it was his normal workmanlike coasting. But this time, and for the first time, he was pitted against a skilled debater who had both the better argument and the better intellectual artillery to deliver it. Disengaged cool could not cut it. “My/I/me/mine” first-person overload was of no value. “Make no mistake about it/Let me be perfectly clear” was of no use. “Bush did it” is passé. And the faux patois of a Reverend Wright–like sermon had no place here. Obama was just Obama without the props.
The result is that it will be harder for Obama to change the dynamic because, despite the media outrage (or in some cases contextualizing, e.g., high-altitude sickness, Turkish/Syrian fighting that day, etc.) over this thrashing, his performance was pretty normal — and looked bad mostly because of the contrast with someone who is quite good and because of the unusual venue that was without supporting media props.
Last night’s performance by Obama might have been enough to edge Alan Keyes, Hillary Clinton, or John McCain, but it came off as terrible, again, because Romney is none of these, and there were not opportunities for the usual White House press obsequious follow-ups and ad-ons of the sort we see at press conferences or the tingle-up-the-leg commentary after Obama’s customarily blasé teleprompted performances.
In other words, Romney seemed like Romney and Obama like Obama and the result reflected that fact — and was considered unusual only because of the oddity that Obama was without his accustomed supports.
What’s next? For Obama to win the next debate, Romney will have to be uncharacteristically bad, Obama will have to be uncharacteristically good, and the moderator will not only have to be engaged but also unashamedly hyper-partisan. All of the above can happen, but it is unlikely.
The final irony? The real culprit for Obama’s disastrous night is not entirely Barack Obama, but rather the media training-wheels who assured Obama for years that he was riding on his own; when they came off last night, he immediately fell, and for some reason we are supposed to be surprised?