It was the RNC perspective, it was the DNC perspective. Erika Johnsen at Hot Air shows the first two ads to run clips from this week's presidential debate. The RNC ad splices shots of Romney explaining what he thinks has to change and why, while the President, on split-screen, grimaces. The DNC ad cuts rapidly among Romney, a pundit, and Jim Lehrer, as Romney tries to keep the floor, Lehrer interjects "Just a moment," and the pundit says, "He just kept going. He just kept going. He just kept going." The President doesn't even appear in this little drama.
Explanations for the President's lackluster performance include altitude sickness, or distraction by his secret national security duties, or spiritual exhaustion from the strain of being forced to conduct wars. These theories are difficult to take seriously. A more telling consensus is that the President dislikes personal confrontation, and was at an unfair advantage because Romney lied. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for a sampling from the nearly 9 million search engine hits on that theme. You would be hard-pressed to find a comments thread on the subject that omits this favorite theory.) What did he lie about? That's not so clear, but a central argument is that Romney misrepresented his own platform.
The latter two explanations -- a distaste for personal confrontation and an inability to confront "lies" -- are more related than they might seem at first. Nothing in the President's background or career has equipped him to grapple with his opponents' different worldviews. He and his set dismiss them without really trying to understand them. Unlike Reagan, for instance, he did not start out on one end of the political spectrum and change to another over time. He spent his life and career among like-minded political activists in academia, in community work, and in public office. It's even possible he gets no more accurate information about Romney's platform than the average voter gets from a hostile media. He seemed genuinely stunned by Romney's assertion that he did not propose to cut taxes by $5 trillion. Strange! Every time I heard Romney on that subject, he stressed that, although he wanted to lower rates, no taxpayer should get excited about the prospect of a lower bill, because the idea was to get rid of a lot of deductions in order to make the changes revenue-neutral. That is, he proposes a flatter and simpler tax structure rather than lower taxes overall. But unless the President is a phenomenal actor, he was surprised when Romney corrected him about his platform. In preparation with his sparring partner, John Kerry, the President may have spent all his time preparing to respond to a caricature.
Is it really possible that the President assumed Romney would get up on the debate stage and advocate the parody of his own platform that is all anyone had been allowed to see on network TV or in the New York Times? Maybe so. Maybe the President really is that unused to arguing with anyone outside his bubble. He doesn't get a charge out of meeting people on their own intellectual ground and trying to bring them around to his point of view; he's more at ease with a captive, silent audience. As Cassandra so memorably put it, he's like a prize fighter who's used to fixed fights: shocked and helpless the first time his handlers put him in the ring with someone ready, willing, and able to land a punch.