Two candidates showed up in Denver last night for the first of three presidential debates. Only one was really there.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney looked his opponent in the eye as he talked. He was engaged, animated yet relaxed, in command. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, looked down at the lectern or at moderator Jim Lehrer, with only furtive glances at Romney. He fidgeted, made facial grimaces, looked annoyed. "I'm the president. Why do I have to submit to this folderol?" (OK, so maybe he didn't think "folderol.")
Romney's answers were clipped, direct. Obama's were rambling, interspersed with lots of "uhs," as if somehow the material were unfamiliar.
Presidential debates aren't about policy. They're about presence. And so it was surprising, even embarrassing, to see the commander in chief so utterly not in command after almost four years in the White House. He didn't make the mistake of looking at his watch, but he did whip around in response to a noise behind him. "Is it over yet? Can I go home?"
This is not a man who likes to share the stage. That is what we've heard all along from members of Congress as well as foreign leaders. It will be up to the public to decide if Obama's poor debate performance is just that or, something more: a metaphor for his governing style.
(Caroline Baum is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)
Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.