10/04/2012 04:16 pm ET Updated Dec 04, 2012

Barack's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: Countdown Day 33

DENVER -- Yes, we can. But can he?

Something is not quite right with President Barack Obama. That was clear long before his passive, distracted performance here Wednesday night against Mitt Romney. The president needs to get back some form of his old magic if he hopes to secure a victory that, until the Denver debate, seemed all but inevitable, even to many of his foes.

The evidence of the president's distance and distaste for the campaign is everywhere. He is invisible around Washington, a place he clearly doesn't like and where he has made few new political friends. He mailed in his acceptance speech in Charlotte, N.C., looking at the end like a man who couldn't wait to get off the stage. He has dutifully hit the campaign trail, but not with the zest or the frenzied response of 2008. And he clearly didn't master his brief for the debate when he went to ground in Las Vegas, though he did take time for a day trip to Hoover Dam.

What gives?

Well, no president, cocooned for four years in the adulation of staff and riding around in Air Force One dealing with global issues, like to descend back into the muck of the campaign world.

But most manage to pretend to relish it. Not this president, certainly not last night. He seemed to be close to pouting at times.

This not-quite-there Obama has its roots in the kind of campaign he decided to run: lacking in big new ideas for a second term, essentially defensive, based on the destruction of Romney as an alternative. It doesn't fit the positive, good-guy image that the president had built for himself in his relatively short political career -- and indeed, that he had built in his entire adult life as a star student, community organizer, civil rights lawyer and law professor.

He'd rather be the master of uplift than the king of the put-down.

And any president would rather tell a simple, positive story than a complex, gray one. Obama is stuck with the need to do the latter.

He has been extraordinarily lucky in politics until now. Two opponents' sex scandals, one each for the primary and general elections, cleared his path to the Senate. With luck and timing, he rode to the White House on a wave of disgust with George W. Bush.

But as president, he has faced the worst and most intractable recession since the 1930s, a Republican Party that refuses to deal in good faith, a world economy in the midst of wrenching change and a decline in institutions that once provided order and respect.

It's a tough row. He has had successes, but he has also made mistakes. For a man who was used to getting an A on every exam and winning every coveted accolade, it's tough to know that barely half of the American people, if that, think you are doing a decent job in your current course work.

Obama is trying to deal with this unsettling personal reality largely alone -- in good part by his own choice. He is surrounded by a small circle of good friends that has, if anything, grown smaller and tighter during his time in Washington.

The inner circle -- Michelle Obama, Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, Eric Whitaker, Jim Messina and David Plouffe, to name most of them -- tell him how wonderful, destined and inevitable he is. But the president didn't act Wednesday night like a man who believed it. Perhaps their advice is getting a little old, or repetitive, or unrealistic.

The return of Bill Clinton, including his role as the star of the Democratic convention, is a mixed blessing for a prideful, competitive president. After all, in 2008 Clinton dismissed him as a "fairy tale" candidate who was nothing more than an Ivy-educated Jesse Jackson.

Now he needs Clinton more than ever. It's an awkward, galling man-hug.

Obama loves to be liked and doesn't like direct confrontation with people he knows or thinks he knows don't like him. Those two qualities have hampered his presidency and limited his first-debate presentation. He gave up trying to work with congressional Republicans, yet in Denver he tried lamely to claim credit as a deficit hawk, playing a GOP game he was never going to win.

Seeking to be agreeable or at least not confrontational, he allowed Romney -- who cheerfully tossed off inaccuracies or outright lies all night -- to cozy up to him and steal his lunch money on issues such as Social Security and commitment to bipartisanship.

Romney would be a bipartisan president? Did anyone see how he cravenly quaffed the Tea Party Kool-Aid? Did Obama not notice? If he did, he didn't say so.

Above all, President Obama has always believed he was on the right side of history: the brainy young hipster from Hawaii, body-surfing to power on the Big Wave of social and demographic change. That sense of destiny was what he sold so effectively in 2008. When he said, "We are the change we have been waiting for," he meant that he was the change that we had been waiting for.

But now the destined Obama must become the determined one.

He has the inner resources to do it. He has to remember the lessons he learned as the son of a hard-luck single mother: that life isn't just about catching a wave. It's about learning to swim upstream.

For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.


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