The perils of complacency were much in evidence during Wednesday's first presidential debate at the University of Denver. The Barack Obama who turned up for this contest was not the master orator or even the vigorous critic of Republican prescriptions on the campaign trail.
This President Obama apparently had taken too much notice of the polls that showed him ahead and seemed to have no greater ambition than not to lose. But by ceding aggressiveness to his energetic GOP opponent, Mitt Romney, the result was the president lost by most viewers' reckonings.
To borrow the terminology of the boxing ring, no knockout was recorded but the incumbent was outpointed time and again by failing to counterpunch when the GOP challenger gave him an opening.
Mr. Obama failed to point out that the $716 billion taken from Medicare to pay for Obamacare -- a scare for seniors -- was the exact figure used by Mr. Romney's GOP running mate Rep. Paul Ryan in his own budget plans and he failed to hammer hard enough that it is about paying providers less while keeping benefits the same. That hypocrisy aside, it is strange for a Republican candidate to take the position that he is against trimming a large government program, but Mr. Romney got away with his shamelessness because Mr. Obama let him.
The president did not once mention Mr. Romney's infamous closed-door remark that 47 percent of Americans were moochers who would never vote for him. Mr. Obama was too busy trying to be America's friend to make the point that this dismissive and incendiary remark included people who are anything but moochers -- such as the working poor, veterans, students and retirees on Social Security who had worked all their lives.
He was restrained again when Mr. Romney promised not to cut defense spending, suggesting that to do so would make the nation weak. This country spends a huge amount on defense -- more than anyone else in the world -- and few seriously doubt that U.S. armed forces will remain the strongest of the strong even if the bloated Pentagon budget went on a spending diet. Indeed, if defense spending is not included in deficit reduction, then all this fretting about red ink is nothing but a political sham. We can say this flatly, but Mr. Obama didn't emphasize the point enough.
To be sure, Mr. Obama effectively pointed out the vagueness of many of Mr. Romney's plans, especially the arithmetic-challenged idea that income taxes can be cut for everybody by 20 percent and done without adding to the deficit by closing unspecified tax loopholes. Yet even here, the self-confidence exuded by Mr. Romney probably left some Americans believing in a deficit fairy with a magic wand.
Wednesday was Mitt Romney's night. Unless Barack Obama can awake from his funk in the second and third debates, find some steel and stop being Mr. Nice Loser, election night could be Mr. Romney's too.