It was as if the candidates swapped bodies before they went out onstage. The president became the Mitt Romney caricature the Obama campaign has created through millions of dollars of advertising: an elitist who has no idea what the middle class is going through. And Mitt Romney became the great communicator who understands the suffering and anxiety of ordinary Americans and knows how to relieve it.
There is no question that Mitt Romney won the debate on points -- his answers were crisp and coherent, while Obama's were slow, rambling and too much in the policy weeds to resonate with most listeners. But the bigger problem for Obama was his manner. He couldn't look Romney in the eye, spent more time looking down than he did trying to connect with the audience and looked annoyed at having to answer questions.
Obama reminded many of President George H. W. Bush when Bush looked at his watch during a town hall debate in 1992. Unfair or not, observers at the time thought President Bush looked like he didn't want to be there and thought he had better things to do than answer questions for the electorate. Some people thought that was the moment when President Bush lost his re-election bid -- and Wednesday's debate could be the moment when Obama lost his.
The media were stunned by Obama's performance. But anyone who watched his debates with Hillary Clinton in 2008 should know that Obama is not quick on his feet. The difference between 2008 and today is that Obama is no longer the new, fresh face that people thought might actually change politics and bring Americans together. He's spent much of the last four years -- and all of his campaign dollars -- trying to divide the country and demonize his opponents. He came across as mean and angry during the debate, while Romney came across as caring and passionate.
Certainly the substance of the candidates' positions on issues was an important factor in the debate as well. Obama reiterated his core belief that government is the engine that drives America and can create jobs and take care of people.
Romney, on the other hand, said that creating jobs can best be accomplished by freeing the private sector from anxiety that their taxes will rise and costs to hire new employees will increase, due to everything from Obamacare to burdensome overregulation. And Romney said that he wants to make sure "that those people who are less fortunate and can't care for themselves are cared for by one another."
Obama said that the way to reduce the deficit is by cutting some spending but more importantly by increasing taxes on the wealthy. Romney believes that the way to reduce the deficit is to cut government spending. He summed up his philosophy brilliantly, saying that his test on every federal program will be to ask: "Is the program so critical it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I'll get rid of it."
The Romney campaign should run that clip as a campaign ad and contrast it with what President Obama has wasted money on since he came to office, including the list of handouts to alternative energy companies such as Solyndra that have gone belly-up and put workers on unemployment lines.
It has never made sense to me that an incumbent president whose term has seen unemployment go up and remain over 8 percent for the last 43 months and who has racked up almost $5 trillion in debt stood any chance to be re-elected. But the polls have shown the president ahead or virtually tied with his challenger through much of the campaign. The conventional explanation has been that people like the president personally and have been lukewarm or cool on Mitt Romney, which means they are less willing to take a chance on the challenger.
In the two most recent elections in which incumbents have been ousted -- Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 -- the challengers seemed more dynamic and in touch with average Americans than the incumbents, and voters decided to take their chances on the new guy. Mitt Romney passed that test Wednesday -- and President Obama failed it miserably.
Based on their performance in the debate, Obama looked a lot like Jimmy Carter of 1976, and Mitt Romney could just be the Ronald Reagan of 2012.