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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Barack Obama’s presidential debate was eerily similar to the man who delivered a muddled acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. The incumbent was cautious, tired and on some level – it seemed – turned off by the manipulation of facts that is the ugly heart of politics.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, seemed to relish it. The challenger was fresher, faster and folksier than a sub-par president. Obama seemed startled and frustrated by Romney’s deft shift to the center and audacious effort to portray Obama as the extremist: Obama is a defender of the big banks; Obama is gutting Medicare; Obama funnelled $90 billion to fat-cat contributors in the renewable energy industry.

Fact-checking by the Reuters and other news organizations show that Romney glaringly twisted the facts. What was more surprising – and troubling – was Obama’s tepid response.

As in Charlotte, Obama was extraordinarily careful. While Romney adopted a wholly new political tack, Obama used the same tired rhetoric, calling for a “balanced approach” to reducing the deficit, all Americans “playing by the same rules” and Romney favouring “those who are better off.”

I can’t think of a single new policy idea that Obama unveiled on the debate night or in Charlotte. The president and his speechwriters must develop more lucid, pithy ways of describing his policies. That may be distasteful, but it is real.

Romney, on the other hand, dramatically shifted to the center. As Matt Miller of the Washington Post pointed out, Romney and his aides will be lauded as geniuses if he wins. Instead of shifting to the center after securing the nomination, as candidates have for decades, they are dashing to the center in the race’s final weeks.

Whether voters believed Romney or not remains to be seen, but on 3rd October night he was a Rockefeller Republican moderate who embraced the need for regulation, Social Security and his governorship of Democratic-leaning Massachusetts. All of the hard-right, Tea Party red meat of the primaries vanished. Whatever the veracity of his statements, credit Romney with having a plan last night, taking a risk and executing well.

Obama and his aides may have decided to sit back, hold steady and maintain the presidential high ground. They may have gambled that Romney would make a gaffe, trip up or somehow stumble. Clearly, they lost that wager.

In the end, there is a problem that goes beyond debate tactics. Obama is failing to lay out a clear agenda for his second term. Yes, specificity is the enemy of any politician. But Americans need a reason to vote for Obama, not just a reason to vote against Romney.

I don’t know the true dynamics inside the White House, but from the outside two forces seem to weaken Obama’s presidency: insularity and overconfidence. To the surprise of many, the Obama White House has proved to be as isolated as that of the George W. Bush administration.

In the Obama White House, a small circle of aides plays a central role in all major decisions, according to press accounts. The president rarely engages with outsiders. Since taking office, he has developed few strong relationships with leaders of Congress or foreign heads of state. And like all presidents, he lives in a bubble.

As David Gergen noted after the debate, Obama joined the long line of incumbent presidents who seemed thrown off their game when their opponents bluntly challenged them in their first re-election debate. News stories have euphemistically referred to Obama being “distant” or “aloof.” The president – like all of his predecessors – is reported to have a staggering ego.

Surviving the pressure, brutal criticism and isolation of the presidency clearly requires self-confidence. But both performances created the sense that Obama needs to work harder for this win.

Lastly, David Brooks raised another possibility after Obama’s weak performance in Charlotte. Is the Obama administration, he asked on the PBS NewsHour, intellectually exhausted?

For me, this is the most troubling scenario. Four years of brutal partisan warfare in Washington could leave the administration out of touch and bereft of new ideas.

In the weeks ahead, we’ll find out if that is true. Romney may have inadvertently done the president a favour by publicly humbling him. Obama needs to come down from the mountain, take more risks and be a more daring and deft politician. More aloof calculation could cause voters to send him packing.

David Rohde is a Reuters columnist.