It's time to stop making excuses for Barack Obama. With so much at stake in this election, his performance at the debate on Wednesday night was indefensible.
Ever since he was elected, there have been reasons offered, either publicly or privately, for why Obama has been unable to fully engage some of the nation's most important challenges. Despite the rampant increase in poverty in the worst downturn since the Depression, Obama supporters whispered that he couldn't do more for the poor and couldn't speak out more forcefully on their behalf because that would not be politically advantageous. So nearly all of his economic initiatives had to be couched in language that referred to the middle class, even though the poor were being hurt far worse. LBJ could launch a war on poverty but not Barack Obama.
Black Americans have been disproportionately clobbered by the Great Recession and its aftermath, losing both income and wealth at staggering rates. Much of the black community is enduring a full-blown economic depression. But Obama and his advisers have been unwilling to address this catastrophe openly and forcefully out of fear that the president would be perceived as too black by prejudiced white voters, thus losing their support.
There is always some excuse, some reason for not bringing all of the president's energy and resources to the fight.
On jobs, the biggest crisis facing the country, the excuse for not having done more has been Republican obstructionism. There is no doubt the Republicans have tried to thwart the president every which way from sundown. But Obama never fought back in kind. He never found his inner Harry Truman, never took his case forcefully to the people. He kept trying to accommodate the other side long after it was clear that no accommodation was possible.
In the face of the worst economic calamity since the 1930s, the United States needed a mammoth job-creation and economic revitalization program, a New Deal for the 21st century. But that would have required presidential leadership capable of challenging the formidable opposition mounted by the very folks who caused the crisis in the first place. Instead we got a woefully insufficient stimulus program and a failed effort at some kind of grand bargain between the president and the retrograde Republicans in Congress. That grand bargain would have imposed austerity measures that would have further crushed the poor and the black and the middle class.
On Wednesday night nearly 60 million television viewers got to witness this chronic unwillingness of Barack Obama to fight. He did not hammer Mitt Romney for his ugly, all-too-revealing comments that demeaned nearly half the population as slackers and ne-er-do-wells. He did not go after Romney's terrible job-creation record as governor of Massachusetts. He did not assail Romney for his callous contention on 60 Minutes that people who don't have health insurance actually do get care -- in the nation's emergency rooms. "If someone has a heart attack, they don't sit in their apartment and die," said Romney. "We pick them up in an ambulance and take them to the hospital and give them care."
Obama never bothered to bring up that cold-hearted comment during the debate, never bothered to explain why the reliance on emergency room treatment is one of the worst possible approaches imaginable to providing health care.
One of the more remarkable things about the debate was Mitt Romney's absolute contempt for anything resembling facts, truth or reality. Deliberate deception was the bedrock foundation of his strategy. He wouldn't even come clean on the tax cuts that are a cornerstone of his campaign. And yet it was Romney who had the chutzpah to look Obama in the eye and assert: "Mr. President, you're entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not your own facts."
How in heaven's name could Obama let him get away with that?
The harsh truth is that President Obama seemed unprepared for the debate. He came off as a man who didn't really want to be there, who wondered why he should have to be bothered fending off the impertinent attacks and serial untruths being flung at him by his opponent. The millions of Obama supporters who wanted to see flashes of passion and fire from their guy -- from a president fighting effectively on their behalf -- were left with nothing but the bitter taste of disappointment.
Romney, in contrast, seemed not just confident but in command. He was dynamic (as he fashioned one falsehood after another), while Obama seemed flat, uncomfortable and unwilling to vigorously counteract the falsehoods. Most important, Romney was the one far more willing to fight.
There will be more debates. And the election has not been decided by any means. But Obama's supporters need to make it clear that the time for excuses is over. The president had no right to show up for a debate unprepared and offer an expectant nation an embarrassingly half-hearted performance. Progressive leaders, who represent Obama's strongest and most faithful supporters, have an obligation to convey that message in the strongest possible terms.
The president let his people down. And if he's capable of doing that in an election that is clearly so important, it means he's capable of doing it again if he wins a second term.