President Barack Obama is the most inscrutable politician in American history. He refuses to engage in displays of either populism or passion when the public is watching.
Only when he truly cares about a subject is he capable of bouts of soaring oratory. Both as a candidate and as president, he has made speeches historians will be studying for generations, if only to understand how a man as contemptuous of the street fight of American politics as Mr. Obama has managed to ascend to the nation's highest elected office.
Most of the time, he's content to hack around a garden of wonky crocuses and policy rhododendrons like the rest of his Washington peers. That's why most of his speeches aren't memorable. Somehow he got it in his head that blandness and unflappability are the qualities that most enhance presidential dignity.
Instead of venturing out on a stylistic limb like his tenor saxophone-playing hero Sonny Rollins, Mr. Obama labors at perfecting the terminally inoffensive politics of a Kenny G. presidency.
Memo to the president: Americans are sick of a constant diet of Mannheim Steamroller. You should express an occasional burst of indignation a la Miles Davis when someone as patently phony as Mitt Romney is gunning for your job. The polls are way too close to spend another second fretting over ephemeral nonsense like likability. The one thing America really can't abide is losers.
Mr. Obama's preference for playing three-dimensional chess is legendary, although his foes have never been embarrassed about grabbing the immediate spoils of American politics played as a blood sport. As Mr. Obama is finding out in the debate postmortem, it is political malpractice to fight by Marquess of Queensberry rules when your opponent comes to the match wearing a football helmet, shoulder pads and bloody cleats.
Maybe it's me, but there isn't a section in "The Art of War" about lulling one's enemies into a false sense of security by refusing to defend oneself. If there is, I missed it. And isn't the whole point of the Rope-a-Dope strategy to draw one's opponent in close, absorb the blows and retaliate with a devastating series of uppercuts once the enemy's arms get tired?
The problem with the debate on Wednesday night was that Mr. Romney's arms never got tired and Mr. Obama never bothered to counterpunch or get off the ropes, despite his opponent's lies and flip-flops.
Ironically, the GOP has long pushed the narrative that Mr. Obama represents the grand distillation of Chicago-style political thuggery. If only that were true. A real thug would've beat Mr. Romney senseless with brass knuckles consisting of Bain, the auto industry bailout, his tax returns, his flip-flop on insurance mandates and the infamous "47 percent" slur.
When Mr. Romney held moderator Jim Lehrer upside down by his ankles to shake the miniscule PBS subsidy out of his pockets, he cackled about how much he was going to enjoy killing Big Bird.
If Mr. Obama were a real Chicago thug, he would have pointed out how Mr. Romney's threat illustrated the stark contrast between their two visions of government. Instead, Mr. Obama stood by as passively as Kitty Genovese's neighbors did in Queens.
I'm not saying that Mr. Obama should have gone after Mr. Romney the way Nicki Minaj went after Mariah Carey at the "American Idol" auditions the other day, but there is something to be said about having a powerful offense even against a foe the media has dubbed a pushover. Instead of his campaign being on life support, Mr. Romney is experiencing a second look by dithering citizens still weighing how they'll vote.
While I'm disappointed with Mr. Obama's performance, I have no doubt he'll win the election. I also believe he'll win the next two debates handily now that he has gotten a taste of his mortality. There must be something about Mr. Obama's psychology that allows him to perform well only when he's running scared. I can relate to that.
Will Mr. Obama show up for the next two debates wearing a black leather jacket and a beret? Naw, he's still Barack Obama at the end of the day, but at least he'll bring his "A" game. We've probably seen the last of the stammering professor until after Election Day.tonynorman
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.