10/09/2012 08:51 am ET Updated Dec 09, 2012

Obama's Presidential Failure

It wasn't just a bad performance. He wasn't like a Broadway lead who, exhausted by the relentless grind, turned in a clunker on a Wednesday matinee. This wasn't just another show during a long run; it was the premiere. And now the understudy is on the hook to salvage the company's prospects in a Thursday-night performance.

For any Obama supporter whose sails were not stilled by the president's vitality-sucking void in last week's debate, the consequences are now spelling out in political headlines everywhere. The Pew Research Center's dramatic poll results serve as a centerpiece to one of the most emphatic sentiment swings in modern political history. The Gallup organization reported that Obama was crushed in popular perception by an unprecedented margin (72% to 20%).

A bad loss can rouse a fighting spirit. We might see a comeback as the debate series continues. But that now-infamous evening felt more deeply depressed than a baseball team suffering a 15-0 rout. Those who were most disturbed were shaken more by absence than outmaneuver, more by Obama's defeated affect than by scored points. The debate was dispiriting, but not primarily because of the outcome. Obama himself appeared appallingly dispirited. It wasn't that he got beat in the end, it's that he seemed trodden from the start. It is no surprise that some pundits wonder whether he truly wants to be re-elected, or whether his ambition has been trampled out of him by a combative, antagonistic first term.

While many commenters point out the transience and unreliability of polls, gigantic shifts in polling outcomes indicate moments of magnitude, and that first debate is without question a teetering pivot point in this presidential battle. Erasure and collapse are the touchstones of Obama's reduced position. Erasure because his popular-vote lead has by most evidence been wiped out, and also because he seemed, mysteriously, to erase himself from debate contention with a lifeless presentation. (See this week's New Yorker cover.) His collapse is both self-sustained and, more importantly, reflected in widespread demoralization.

If there is any truth to the conjecture that Obama has lost his will to win, you wouldn't know it from the uninterrupted fundraising drumbeat resounding from the campaign's email headquarters. Nobody would expect it to stop, but there was an offensive quality to the campaign's lack of acknowledgment. Something important happened last week, a tectonic and consequential failure. Insofar as it was a failure to prepare, or gauge an event's import, or rise to the challenge, or get enough sleep, or whatever the hell it was, did the campaign have a responsibility to pause for a level-setting moment with its supporters? If not an obligation, there was an opportunity to repair damage within the circle of support.

Instead, the core post-debate fundraising messages twisted the knife of disillusionment with tone-deaf admonishments. "Get his back," one header implored, as if the president's followers were on the hook to join a gunfight while their man was napping. "This is in your hands," another reproved, in apparent retraction of Obama's leadership role, seeming to confirm his debate withdrawal.

If Barack Obama merely blew it as a candidate, it is disappointing only to his supporters. Mitt Romney's followers will not take him to task. But in the midst of partisan commentary around the stunning debate transaction, it is worth remembering that Obama is not only a candidate, but also the president of this country. What standard of performance could be called a presidential responsibility in a campaign debate? Political debate plunges roots deep into the nation's history. This one was viewed by about 67 million people. That's 21 percent of the citizenry and 51 percent of the number of voters in 2008. For millions of people, the debate offered the first sustained exposure to Governor Romney. For everyone, it was the first prolonged conversation between the two finalists of a years-long competition to lead the free world. Is there a threshold of commitment to the debate function, below which a president should be accountable?

Giving a good debate hardly carries the same weight of responsibility as carrying the nuclear football. But it is a reasonable presidential obligation to appear in a keystone of the democratic process with verve befitting the nation's top executive, to state a case, draw comparisons, elucidate contrasts, summarize achievements, engage in rebuttals, and appear to be listening. Failure on all these counts is hardly traitorous betrayal, but it is scandalously unpresidential. It's not just a partisan letdown. All civic-minded citizens should expect more.