The debate with Romney, however, marked the first time in his national political life that Obama has had the harder task of defending a record of governance. That he could not make the case onstage for a successful four years suggests either that his record is nearly indefensible -- 42 months of unemployment above 8 percent, more than $5 trillion in new debt, record numbers of Americans on food stamps, anemic economic growth -- or that Obama believes voters don't care that much. Perhaps they will again be mesmerized by his promises of millions of new green jobs, more government entitlements and more attacks on the better-off who haven't paid "their fair share."
Barack Obama has always felt that it was enough to show up rather than to achieve. We all know that he got into Occidental College and Columbia University, was Law Review editor at Harvard, was offered a professorship at the University of Chicago Law School, and was elected senator and president. But we rarely heard of a significant record of actual achievement as a student, academic or legislator -- until his first term as president.
This was also the first time that Obama has faced a skilled debater. In Obama's 2000 debate with the plodding Rush, the latter coasted -- rightly assuming that his long incumbency would be enough to defeat the so-so challenger Obama.
In the 2004 senatorial race, Obama's main rivals in the primary and general elections imploded due to mysteriously leaked divorce records. The last-minute fill-in candidate in the general election, Alan Keyes, was deemed wacky and not a serious opponent.
Obama ended up mostly achieving draws when jousting with Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries. He won two of the three debates with nondescript presidential rival McCain by consistently attacking Bush and blaming the 2008 financial meltdown on Republicans.
In previous debates, Obama sounded not much different than he did last week against Romney. Obama customarily looked down, gave disjointed off-topic sermons, and stuttered uncertainly. That did not matter all that much, given that his youth and professorial air contrasted well with the inept Bobby Rush and Alan Keyes, and he appeared on camera as a fresh face in contrast to old, familiar, retread politicos like Clinton and McCain.
Obama's handlers know all this. No wonder what worries them is not that Obama was off his game against Romney, but that the game itself -- not Obama -- has suddenly changed.