It had been nearly 1,400 days since Barack Obama strode onto a debate stage — and it showed in a major way Wednesday at the first presidential debate of 2012.
Obama, who has spent most of the past four years speaking to hand-picked interviewers or lecturing audiences required to remain mostly mute while he spoke, struggled to shake off the rust in a jostling debate environment that gave his opponent Mitt Romney parity, equal time — and a new lease on political life.
There were no game-changing gaffes and the debate was a substantive break from months of caustic negative campaigning on both sides, including lengthy discussions over deficit reduction and entitlement reform that seemed to yield hints of common ground — and also seemed to elevate both men.
Yet even that was inherently bad news for Obama, who had hoped to convince voters he was the only possible president onstage.
Romney’s aides and surrogates sprinted into the spin room to offer effusive assessments of their candidate’s performance, and Fox News contributor Juan Williams was caroling “Massacre! Massacre!” to himself as he bounded out of the men’s restroom. Obama’s team didn’t meet the press for a full 10 minutes — and one top Democrat, asked to say the best thing about the president’s performance, said Obama has been “just working to maintain cool and be reassuring” in an email to POLITICO.