Obama's problem last night was not that he looked down, or tired, or distracted, or even failed to push the hapless Jim Lehrer around as well as Romney. His problem was that Romney managed to come off as the insurgent, the person representing the aggrieved, moved by indignation.
Obama, that is, had a decent-enough "vision" but failed to articulate a problem for which he is the presumed solution. Romney did that, which is just what brought about the "shellacking" of 2010. "Things are bad, you are the president, so it's your fault." Somehow Romney came off as the corrector of falsehoods, friend of the unemployed, champion of bipartisanship.
This has been a problem for Obama, and not just as a campaigner, from the start: an unwillingness to channel anger, or blame another--not when there are two sides to be seen. Whether the issue was Wall Street compensation or Republican sabotage or Bibi's settlements, the president seemed to believe that someone had to be the adult. Zadie Smith worried about this four years ago and I confess I did not take her apprehension seriously enough.
And it is the more frustrating because it is so obvious whom and how to blame. Bill Clinton gave Obama the opening at the convention. "We left you with a mess, you didn't clean it up fast enough, so put us back in charge." All Obama had to add to this was, "Oh, and we did everything we could to obstruct you, in the hope that things would take even longer to improve and voters would be so gullible as to blame you."
What Obama had to do, in other words, was run against the Republicans in Congress: remind people of the filibuster until 2010, of Mitch McConnell's dream, and why we didn't get a supplementary jobs bill, or cap-and-trade, or immigration reform, or Wall Street regulations with teeth; remind them of the Republican willingness, after 2010, to see the economy freeze up over the debt ceiling rather than tax the rich, or build roads and bridges, if this meant Obama might get credit.
Of course Obama should have thrown back at Romney his lies about the $716 billion, etc. But that's a detail. Nobody trusts CBO numbers any more than Bain Capital trusts the numbers in a business plan. What we look for in leaders are people who can explain why things are as they are, and what voters have to do to fix things. Obama should have been saying since January 2009: "Congressional Republicans are half the government, and I can't govern unless you run them out of town."
Obama should have been making himself the insurgent, you see, which he always was, and didn't seem to notice. Certainly, his campaign should have been making Eric Cantor the face of power. Then, Romney would come off just the sly, self-invented, manifestly hypocritical agent of the status quo; and of a Congress run by the 1% that disdains the 47%. It is a story the vast majority of citizens, appalled by what's been happening over the past two years, and hating the Congress, can buy, even with Obama in the White House. (Reagan ran against "tax-and-spend" Democrats as hard in 1984 as 1980.)
Then the election would be a referendum on the House majority, the Tea-Party, not a referendum on how much patience a president deserves, or whether Obamacare hindered growth, which it could not, since it hasn't even been enacted yet. Obama could be appealing for a Congress to work with, "so that we can start getting things done again," like the auto bail-out, or health insurance reform after 100 years of Republican resistance; not about who is better about working "across the aisle," what Romney called (and here was his knock-out punch at the end of the debate) "leadership."
Anyway, Obama has somehow allowed himself to be held responsible, colluding in the idea that he is the president, and thus the economy is his--you know, the dumb thing the pollsters say and handsome journalists repeat.
Obama thought, in other words, that he could get reelected simply by discrediting Romney as a plutocrat--a depiction Romney seemed all too willing to cooperate with for a while. The thing is, a rich, white man with big energy can seem naturally presidential in America. Remember FDR and JFK? All Romney would have to do to is dispel the idea that he doesn't care about ordinary people or can't be bothered to do his homework. That's what he did last night.