Okay, who thinks President Obama should have taken his wife out for their anniversary instead of debating Mitt Romney?

With or without the sound on, Romney dominated the first presidential debate in Denver on Wednesday night. He came off as ready, reasonable, and crucially, not even a little bit of a doofus

The president, on the other hand, looked like he would rather have been anywhere else, and perhaps in an effort to avoid one of those “You’re likable enough, Hillary,” outbreaks of flaming smarty-pants-itis, let his rival get away with a lot: He was even unaggressive in challenging that tried-and-untrue talking point about how Obama has raided Medicare to pay for “Obamacare.” And the same goes for Romney’s out-of-nowhere assertion that he wants to keep parts of Dodd-Frank and lower the boom on Wall Street.

While Romney earned an “A” for affect, Obama looked down, looked away and sometimes even nodded encouragingly  as Romney finally kicked off his general election campaign, suddenly presenting himself as a uniter and friend of the working stiff.

But worst in my book was the president’s weak mewl of a closing statement: “You know, four years ago, I said that I’m not a perfect man and I wouldn’t be a perfect president. And that’s probably a promise that Governor Romney thinks I’ve kept. But I also promised that I’d fight every single day on behalf of the American people…I’ve kept that promise and if you’ll vote for me, then I promise I’ll fight just as hard in a second term.”

The unenergetic way he said that he’d fight communicated just the opposite and reminded me of how sometimes my kids sound, telling me they’ll try to accomplish whatever chore I have in store. When they put it that way, I am well and truly warned that they have little to no intention of actually following through. And the president’s general lack of get-up-and-go played right into the Republican argument that he’s a well-intentioned sort who hasn’t gotten it done — and despite his best efforts, won’t.

When Obama argued that the Romney tax plan doesn’t add up and isn’t equitable, the governor called him a fibber in the sunniest possible way: “I will not reduce the share paid by high-income individuals. I know that you and your running mate keep saying that and I know it’s a popular thing to say with a lot of people, but it’s just not the case. Look, I’ve got five boys. I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it.”

Obama, on the other hand, seemed at a loss about how to bat down whoppers without being disagreeable, and when he did lash out, it was at poor Jim Lehrer, who’d just told him his two minutes were up: “I had five seconds before you interrupted me.” Boo-hoo, but that’s not on the list of things presidents get to cry over.

The moderator so let Romney control the debate that if elected, the Republican might want to rethink his plan to defund Big Bird’s network. Why, in a campaign in which there’s been such a lack of specificity, the longtime PBS anchor lobbed a big-picture question about the role of government near the debate’s end was a stumper. And he even broke one of Julia Child’s cardinal rules for cooking and life — “You should never apologize at the table. People will think, ‘Yes, it’s really not so good,” — when he said that with time too rapidly running out, “I’m not going to…say your answers have been too long or I’ve done a poor job.” 

One Republican who may not have loved every moment of Romney’s performance is Indiana Senate candidate and tea party favorite Richard Mourdock, whose Democratic rival, Joe Donnelly, has been running a series of hilarious and highly effective ads against what he calls Mourdock’s “my way or the highway” approach to working across the aisle. Romney likely earned a cameo in a future Donnelly ad when he said, “my experience as a governor is if I come in and lay down a piece of legislation and say, “It’s my way or the highway,” I don’t get a lot done.”

The “zingers” Team Romney promised did not really materialize, unless you count this one: “Mr. President, you’re entitled as the president to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts.” Nor, alas, did the president answer Romney’s assertion that “the place you put your money just makes a pretty clear indication of where your heart is,” with a reference to Romney’s accounts in the Caymans.

Perhaps the boldest moment of the night came when Romney cast himself as eager to crack down on the financial sector. At every campaign stop, he rails against regulation in general and Dodd-Frank in particular. In Denver, however, he sounded like a different man: “We’re not going to get rid of all regulation. You have to have regulation. And there are some parts of Dodd-Frank that make all the sense in the world.” 

So will conservatives be inflamed by this unrecognizably moderate rhetoric? On the contrary; this once, they surely agree with Nancy Pelosi’s bottom-line advice to Democratic House candidates: “Just win, baby.”

The overall impression was that these two men are not as far apart as advertised, but only one had had his energy drink, and the other was hoping not to spend his next wedding anniversary in front of millions of people.


Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors the paper’s ‘She the People’ blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC