Even at a dinner dedicated to the Happy Warrior, the president seemed like the Unhappy Warrior.
President Barack Obama was elegant in white tie and got off some good gibes at the annual Al Smith charity banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan on Thursday.
But his smile sometimes looked forced as he was goaded by Mitt Romney, whose comic barbs were just as aggressive as his last debate performance.
"President Obama and I are each very lucky to have one person who is always in our corner, someone who we can lean on, and someone who is a comforting presence," Mr. Romney said. "Without whom, we wouldn't be able to go another day. I have my beautiful wife Ann, he has Bill Clinton."
It was funny, and it drew blood.
Tremors from the asymmetrical first debate are still reshaping the race and buoying Mr. Romney. It has been said that Mr. Obama didn't show up for that contest, but the reverse is true: The real Obama did show up, indulging in flashes of petulance, self-pity and passivity at a treacherous moment for himself, other Democratic candidates and all the people working their hearts out -- and emptying their wallets out -- for him.
Will it mean that Mr. Obama ends up being the one-term Democratic tunnel between the first black president, as Bill Clinton has been dubbed, and the first female president -- the organic arugula in a messy, meaty Clinton sandwich?
Much was made of the alpha tone of the second presidential debate. But it was more like a parody of alpha, a couple of pampered, manicured Harvard princes kicking up "gorilla dust," as Ross Perot calls it. In a truly commanding performance, you don't jab fingers, invade space, bark interruptions.
Mr. Obama put aside his disdain for jousts and woke up from the "nice, long nap I had in the first debate," as he wryly said at Thursday's dinner. But he was overcompensating for the first debacle, and he still didn't have a vision or memorable zingers or a knockout punch for a rival who hides in plain sight.
Mr. Obama's contempt for Mr. Romney gleamed through as Mitt got all OCD with Candy Crowley about the rules, and rambled on about his weird retro worldview, where women in binders have to bound home to make dinner, where the problem of too-easy access to assault weapons could be helped if, gosh, we just tell "our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone."
As Massachusetts governor, Mr. Romney signed a ban on certain assault weapons. But now he has "Romnesia," as Mr. Obama bitingly calls it, so Mitt is always distancing himself from himself.
In some ways, the two rivals are alike: cold, deliberative fish, self-regarding elitists with upbringings out of the norm and trouble connecting at times, as when Mr. Obama echoed Jon Stewart's word "optimal" on "The Daily Show" and sounded aloof about the tragedy in Libya: "If four Americans get killed, it's not optimal." The mother of one of those Americans, Sean Smith, told The Daily Mail of London, "It's insensitive to say my son is not very optimal; he is also very dead."
These candidates are, in some respects, natural antagonists. Their rancor seems especially intense, fueled by jagged ads and a long period of mud-wrestling on the head of a pin.
Barry scorns Mitt as a guy who had it all handed to him and now feels comfortable taking it away from everybody else.
Like the Bushes, the Romneys, another famous Republican political dynasty that grows more conservative with each generation, promote the myth that they are self-made men.
"The danger arises when a family myth intersects with a governing vision, when the stories a presidential candidate tells himself shape the policies he favors for everyone else," Noam Scheiber writes in The New Republic, adding that the Romneys can't fathom that if federal programs are slashed for the less privileged, those people can't use family connections to help obstacles melt away.
The president joked at the Al Smith dinner about how both candidates had "unusual" middle names -- Mitt and Hussein -- noting mock-wistfully, or maybe really wistfully, "I wish I could use my middle name."
The line summed up Mr. Obama's incredible odyssey, how many barriers he had to leap over with no rich daddy, no daddy at all, to rise to the pinnacle. President Cool hates the fact that the uncool scion is making him descend from the lofty heights of governing and engage in crass politics.
Mr. Romney can only do offense, not defense. He expects to be catered to as the smartest guy in the room, and he clearly loathes being patronized by Mr. Obama. But some who have worked with Mitt say his teeth-baring is an act, overlaying indifference. Mr. Romney, they say, is all about crunching the data, regarding Mr. Obama coldly as an impediment to his dream of becoming the first Mormon president.
"Mitt does not express great love, and he does not express hate," said one Republican strategist who knows him well. "Ledger sheets don't hate."opinion_commentary
Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.