Within minutes of the parting handshake, the liberal base went ballistic. Bill Maher, Chris Matthews and Michael Moore all but accused Obama of embarrassing the progressive cause. The post-debate spin focused not on whether the president had been creamed by challenger Mitt Romney, but rather on how that had been possible.
For a while, there were excuses galore. Was the meltdown due to Denver's high altitude? Perhaps the president was distracted over national security issues. Had Obama taken a pre-debate sedative for tension? Surely the rapid-recall Romney must have sneaked in written talking points on his Kleenex.
A few days later, there were accusations from the Obama camp that Romney had been "untruthful" in the back-and-forth -- a post-facto charge not leveled by the president in the middle of the debate, but only afterwards in his prepared campaign speeches.
Yet Obama was not that out of character in the debate -- at least not in comparison to his past performances. Obama's professorial detachment, his condescension, his long meandering answers, his avoidance of direct questions, his occasional petulance and his frequent verbal tics, stalls and stutters were all pretty normal for him.
Why, then, the hysteria over a typical Obama performance? Again, roll the tape of any prior debate, press conference or question-and-answer session, and what you see is about the same as we saw the other night.
What was radically different was not Obama's normal workmanlike performance, but two novel twists.
This was the first debate in which Obama has had a record to defend. In 2000, he ran for Congress in a primary race against Bobby Rush and attacked the incumbent. In 2004, he ran successfully for the U.S. Senate, offering all sorts of promises -- but never ran for re-election on their fulfillment.
In 2008, a blank-slate Obama ran for president and won by lumping in challenger John McCain with unpopular incumbent president George W. Bush -- while offering banalities like "hope and change" and "yes, we can!"