The president of the United States in the last debate chose to go on the attack against his challenger, Mitt Romney -- and once again largely failed to convince the American people that he was the more presidential alternative.
But how did the once-messianic incumbent find himself in this fix of playing the catch-up role of a bar-room-brawling challenger rather than a calm and confident president? Despite running ahead in the polls for most of the year, Barack Obama has rarely achieved a 50 percent favorability rating, largely because of four years of dismal economic news. Obama himself had warned us four years ago that if he didn't restore prosperity, he would be a one-term president -- and the debates taught us that he was probably right.
Promises about halving the annual deficit, getting unemployment below 6 percent and increasing middle-class incomes were never met. The recent unrest in the Middle East and the killing of an American ambassador and three other Americans in Libya did not help convince anyone that Obama's foreign policy was so successful that they could afford to overlook an anemic economy.
Yet the American people always wanted a viable alternative before they admitted their mistake and dumped a president whom they had voted in with such adulation in 2008. Obama sensed that hesitancy, and so he spent nearly $1 billion in a largely negative campaign to convince voters that Romney was insensitive to women, callous to the poor and, in general, a heartless, out-of-touch capitalist. The implicit message was that even if Obama's first term had not worked out as promised, Romney would nevertheless be even worse. The lesser of two evils, not a successful four years, had replaced hope and change this time around.
But after three debates, voters at last got to know Romney. What they saw and heard was quite different from the villain of the attack ads. In the first encounter, even the pro-Obama media came away shocked that the supposedly aristocratic Romney proved more personable -- and more knowledgeable -- than the listless Obama. The president showed up as if the entire debate were a tedious chore -- as if Romney could not possibly win the debate, and even if he did, it would have no effect on the media or on Obama's steady lead in the polls.
Instead, Obama's terrible 90 minutes set off a chain reaction, eroding the president's lead in the critical swing states. In the fireworks of the second debate, with its town-hall format, Obama came out fiery and accusatory, and pulled off a tie or narrow victory based on his sheer aggression -- or on the fact that he at least had improved upon his first losing debate performance.