President Barack Obama likes to be alone.
When he speaks at rallies, he doesn't want the stage cluttered with other officeholders. When he rides in his limo, he isn't prone to give local pols a lift. He wants to feel that he doesn't owe his ascension to anyone else -- not a rich daddy, not a spouse or father who was president, not even those who helped at pivotal moments. He believes he could do any job in his White House or campaign, from speechwriter to policy director, better than those holding the jobs.
So Mr. Obama knows that he alone is responsible for his unfathomable retreat into his own head while nearly 70 million people watched. He hadn't been nailing it in debate prep either, taking a break to visit the Hoover Dam, and worried aides knew his head wasn't in it. When the president realized what a dud he was, he apologized to flummoxed and irritated advisers.
Once during the 2008 campaign, reading about all the cataclysms jolting the economy and the world, Mr. Obama joked to an adviser: "Maybe I should throw the game." This time, he actually threw the game. And shaved points right off his poll ratings.
The president is good at analyzing the psychology of other world leaders, and he wrote an acclaimed memoir about his long, lonely odyssey of self-discovery. But he doesn't always do a good job at analyzing his own psychology to avoid self-destructive patterns.
David Maraniss, who wrote biographies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, said that both men had recurring themes. Mr. Clinton would plant "the seeds of his own undoing" and then "find a way to recover." Mr. Obama's personality, Mr. Maraniss said, was shaped by his desire to avoid traps created by his unusual family and geographical backgrounds, and the trap of race in America.
"It helped explain his caution, his tendency to hold back and survey life like a chessboard, looking for where he might get checkmated," Mr. Maraniss wrote in the book, "Barack Obama: The Story," adding that it also made Mr. Obama seek to transcend confrontation.
While Mitt Romney did a great job of conjuring a less off-putting and hard-right version of himself, Mr. Obama walked into a trap of his own devising. It was a perfect psychological storm for the president. He performs better when his back is against the wall; he has some subconscious need to put himself in challenging positions. That makes it hard for him to surf success and intensity; he just suddenly runs out of gas and stops fighting, leaving revved up supporters confused and deflated.
"That's just his rhythm," said one adviser.
Because Mr. Obama doesn't relish confrontation, he often fails to pin his opponents on the mat the first time he gets the chance; instead, perversely, he pulls back and allows foes to gain oxygen. It happened with Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and Texas and with Republicans in the health care and debt-ceiling debates. Just as Mr. Obama let the Tea Party inflate in the summer of 2009, spreading a phony narrative about "death panels," now he has let Mr. Romney inflate and spread a phony narrative about moderation and tax math.
Even though Mr. Obama was urged not to show his pompous side, he arrived at the podium cloaked in layers of disdain: a disdain for debates, which he regards as shams; a venue, as Carter White House adviser Gerry Rafshoon puts it, where "people prefer a good liar to a bad performer."
Mr. Obama feels: Seriously? After all he did mopping up Republican chaos, does he really have to spend weeks practicing a canned zinger? Should the man who killed Osama bin Laden and personally reviews drone strikes have to put on a show of macho swagger?
Plus, he's filled with disdain for Mr. Romney, seeing him as the ultimate slick boardroom guy born on third base trying to peddle money-making deals. Surely everyone sees through this con man?
Just as Poppy Bush didn't try as hard as he should have because he assumed voters would reject Slick Willie, Mr. Obama lapsed into not trying because he assumed voters would reject Cayman Mitt.
The president averted his eyes as glittering opportunities passed, even when Mr. Romney sent a lob his way with a reference to his accountant.
Mr. Obama has been coddled by Valerie Jarrett, the adviser who sat next to Michelle at the debate, instead of the more politically strategic choice of local pols and their spouses. Ms. Jarrett believes that everyone must woo the prodigy who deigns to guide us, not the other way around.
At a fundraising concert in San Francisco Monday, the president mocked Mr. Romney's star turn, saying "what was being presented wasn't leadership; that's salesmanship."
It is that distaste for salesmanship that caused Mr. Obama not to sell or even explain his health care and economic policies; and it is that distaste that caused him not to sell himself and his policies at the debate. His latest fundraising plea is marked "URGENT." But in refusing to muster his will and energy and urgently sell his vision, he underscores his own lapses in leadership and undermines his arguments for four more years.
Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.