The President’s failure is certified by instant polls and the stunned response of admirers from Chris Matthews to Andrew Sullivan, beyond any hope of salvation by campaign spinners.
His collapse recalls the disaster of 1960, when sitting Vice-President Richard Nixon ended up looking weak and ineffectual in the first televised debate ever, being lectured and dominated by an energetic opponent.
Yet Mitt Romney was no JFK last night, just a pumped-up salesman selling the latest model of himself with evasions and distortions that a lethargic President seemed too tired to swat away with the disdain and tartness they merited.
What could Barack Obama have been thinking? Was he inhibited by worries about appearing to be an angry rather than professorial black man? Did he fear turning off “independent” voters by putting an unruly student in his place? Was he deeply offended by having to get on the same level with the likes of Romney?
Or is what we saw last night emblematic of a real problem, the President who wasted so much time trying to conciliate implacable Congressional Republicans before confronting them, who may still believe he can overcome irrationality rather than calling it out?
In any case, Barack Obama united the country last night in either shocked or delighted surprise with his listless performance. If he is the quick learner he is assumed to be, the next debate should be different.