the obama problem

A comment on President Obama’s first, awful debate performance – it took me almost two weeks, and the impending second debate, to settle why round one was such a debacle.

There have been reports Obama knows he had a bad night, and is determined to do better this time out. He will, but may not undo the damage from the first round. Here’s why: the Barack Obama we saw in Denver was not a man having a terrible, bad night. Right or wrong, the president left the impression of something far deeper than ‘one bad night.’

What we saw that night was a president who looked exhausted, emotionally drained, and as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. That’s why his supporters reacted as they did; President Obama behaved as if he has run out of appetite for the job. He’ll still do it, and believes he has a duty to continue. But the office is a burden, something to carry on his back.

He’s entirely justified in feeling that way. The last four years would have taken it out of any president, and President Obama has done as good a job as we could expect of navigating problems that threatened – and still threaten – to break things permanently. However, it frightens voters to think the person they’ve put their faith in may no longer have much faith himself.

With the distance of 10 days or so, I’m inclined to think Mitt Romney’s performance that night was a lightning strike. Clearly, Romney was prepared to show he could be the country’s CEO. His camp could not have counted on the other guy seeming weak and tired. For the first time, Romney came into focus as an acceptable alternative to Obama. I’ve watched a number of President Obama’s speeches since then; sometimes he’s fine, (I particularly liked the speech he delivered two days after the debate), but I’ve also heard – more than I’d like – Obama straining, like someone who’s up all night and then flogs himself with caffeine just to stay awake.

So look to President Obama to do a lot of things right Tuesday night, to illuminate the inconsistencies and hedges in the Romney platform. He may even be able to reassure us he not only thinks he has a duty to be President, but that he wants the job. But it will be impossible to erase the fact that he had to reassure us, that there was a debate that was one long moment of doubt.

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