Probably the best way to understand Obama’s listless performance is that he was prepared to debate the claims Romney has been making for the entire campaign, and Romney switched up and started making different and utterly bogus ones. Obama, perhaps, was not prepared for that, and he certainly didn’t think quickly enough on his feet to adjust to it.
If I may, as an amicus curiae. It has always been my contention that Obama's greatest failing as a politician is that he vastly overestimates the perspicacity of the American electorate. Obama isn't a natural populist, a Steinbeckian Man of the People, or a Robert Penn Warren demagogue--all sublime examples of that peculiar political species that knows, just knows, how to relate to registered-voter ignorance. Notwithstanding his labors as a community organizer, Obama is a student, a reader, a thinker--a sublime example of intellectual integrity that assumes others understand essentially what he understands; hence there's no reason to pound away at the obvious.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is a slithering viper. In good part he made his fortune either relieving unsuspecting victims of their treasures or burdening them with massive debt, all along convincing them that they were merely doing what was in their best interest. He was only there to help. He's a con man, a bunco artist, an emotionless exploiter of others' hopes; and as his business skills went, so go his politics. He'll say, do, maneuver, scheme, plot, intrigue, manipulate, conspire and contrive in any possible way and to any necessary degree to just close the damn deal. Moral and ethical consequences can't be quantified--deontology has no known applicable "metrics"--so fuck 'em. The only thing that counts is winning.
Personality A, that of Obama's, is rarely "prepared" for the "utterly bogus" Personality B. It simply doesn't occur to the ethical, thoughtful man that anyone could be, would wish to be as ruthlessly unethical and deliberately thoughtless as, let's say, a Mitt Romney. And if a Romney does pull his little tricks, well, won't they be immediately obvious to everyone? If not--if others' perspicacity indeed comes up wanting--then it becomes time to "adjust."
Which we'll see in two weeks.