10/05/2012 10:54 am ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

What Happened to Obama in Debate #1?

Unfortunately, Wednesday night's debate makes the headlined question necessary. The president performed so badly, appeared so out of touch, so tongue-tied, so unwilling or unable to engage with Romney or refute his obvious lies, so oblivious to the realities of television that he kept grimly looking down at his notes instead of coolly and loosely paying attention to his opponent, that it is hard to believe he's the same person who fought his way through the primaries and to election four years ago, and has proved a tough adversary many times since then -- although with plenty of exceptions, as noted below.

I heard TV pundits speculating that perhaps the explanation for his lack of assertiveness was that, as president, he's spent the last four years solely in the company of fawning, scraping courtiers who've kowtowed to his every word and wish and left him frighteningly out of practice for the rough-and-tumble of debate. I don't buy that. Admittedly, Romney has had far more recent experience and practice in 20 or so Republican primary debates.

But, instead of half a dozen GOP village idiots, Obama has had to deal with the likes of Bibi Netanyahu, John Boehner, Vladimir Putin and many other hostiles in the White House. And he should have been hardened in the crucible of tough questions in dozens of news conferences, television interviews and campaign stops -- not to mention the difficult decisions he's had to make involving such issues as the Bush Depression and the killing of Bin Laden. Some speculate that Obama thoroughly dislikes Romney, but may have been warned against ripping into him for fear of being portrayed as an angry black man, and repressed his feelings to the point of neutering himself.

I have no explanation for his behavior, other than to dismiss it by saying he just had a bad night. But I do point out that the feckless Obama we saw last night was not entirely a new one. His behavior reminded me of the weak president we saw during too much of his term in office, climaxed by his cave-in during last year's debt-ceiling crisis, which was resolved without the tax increase he sought -- and led to an unprecedented downgrade of this country's credit rating.

What the country needed after eight disastrous years of Bush was jobs and a solution to the foreclosure crisis. What Obama gave us (besides a welcome, expanded health care plan) was a stimulus that wasn't nearly big enough. He didn't fight hard enough for more stimulus; or a big, much-needed infrastructure jobs program, or any way out of the housing disaster.
Instead, he gave in to Republican craziness, adopting their phony cry that the real economic problems were deficits and debts. Republicans spent eight years accumulating those deficits, and raising the national debt by 86 percent under Bush, without a worry in the world. Remember those two deficit-financed wars, two tax cuts mostly for the rich, and an unpaid-for Medicare drug program.

But suddenly, when Obama came in, Republicans made debt the nation's Number #1 problem. And Obama bought it. Instead of more government spending to replace the private sector's lack of same, he was almost as enthusiastic about debt reductions as the GOPers. Although, of course, they refused even to consider raising taxes, even on billionaires, as part of the solution. And the aim of their spending cuts, far from his, is "to starve the beast," i.e. destroy the government.

Speaking of destruction, in 2008 American banks came close to destroying the economies of this and other countries. But, four years later, Obama's administration has still not seen fit to prosecute a single one of the bankers for criminal wrongdoing. Or ended Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, which he had vowed to do but caved on in December 2010. In April 2011, he caved again and agreed to $38 billion in budget cuts to avoid a government shutdown. And later, in another cave, he offered to reduce Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid by $650 billion over 10 years -- including raising the Medicare age from 65 to 67 -- to get the debt ceiling raised.

But even that wasn't enough to satisfy Boehner, who walked away from the talks in July 2011 because Obama wanted to change the 10-year deal by increasing revenues from $800 billion to $1.2 trillion. In doing so, Obama was performing still another cave-in, although this time it was to others than strictly Republicans.

For one thing, the Senate's Gang of Six, three Republicans and three Democrats, came out with a plan that called for $2 trillion in revenue increases, far exceeding anything Obama demanded. For the other, Senate Democrats were furious when they learned of his offers to cut entitlements -- with no immediate provision to raise taxes (something House Republicans refused even to consider). That was the end of Obama's efforts for a bipartisan grand bargain.

The cave-in-prone Obama we saw back then may be the same one we saw Wednesday night. If so, that's plenty scary if he wins a second term. And, after Wednesday night, that's A BIG IF. As another blogger put it succinctly and accurately: "If you want to win, you can't let the other guy walk all over you."