Last night we looked behind the curtain, and what we saw was a president who was not up to the task of explaining his own policies. We’ve had unemployment above 8 percent for an unprecedented 42 months on his watch, and this guy seemed clueless. His grasp of how an economy works appeared tenuous at best.       

Then there was the matter of optics: President Obama was Richard Nixon to Mitt Romney’s JFK of the famous, first televised presidential debate when Nixon lost by looking like the dickens. Mitt Romney, 65, projected youth and vi-gah; Barack Obama, 50, looked like the debate could not end soon enough.

No, this does not win the election for Mitt Romney. But President Obama’s supporters knew quickly that last night was developing into a donnybrook for their man. (“This was a disaster”—Andrew Sullivan.) The president’s performance was so awful that he became the butt of jokes, never good for a savior. Charles Hurt of the Washington Times was, as always, hilarious:

What exactly was Mr. Obama’s strategy here? Did he figure with so many people unemployed in this abomination of an economy he should go for the sympathy vote? Like voters could relate to a guy who is just scared pantsless that he is about to lose his job?

One of the most revealing moments was when the leader of the free world looked pleadingly at moderator Jim Lehrer and begged for a bailout. The trapped president said to Lehrer, “You may want to move onto another topic.” I want to say a few words for the beleaguered Lehrer, whose performance last night has been lambasted right and left.

The left is upset that Lehrer didn’t do a better job of protecting President Obama from Romney’s smiling onslaughts, while the right seems to have wanted him to do a better job of enforcing time limitations. Who cares? The debate was interesting and informative and I for one am quite glad that Mr. Lehrer lost control: it was better than way. Romney had better plan for the contingency that future moderators may not be as willing to let him have at the president.

After flailing in the debate, President Obama is likely to put out some new, more vicious ads. Sarah Palin, who knows a thing or two about running against President Obama, says to be prepared: the Obama campaign is one of the toughest we’ve ever seen, and they aren’t going to roll over.    

But here is what I think we saw last night: a President Obama who can’t defend the last four years, who’s not knowledgeable enough about the real world to even understand why things went sour. One ofthe best moments was when the president was going on about a “subsidy” to Exxon, which is hated by many liberals but beloved by many little old ladies who have it in their retirement portfolios. Romney pointed out that the subsidy actually goes to smaller companies but said that it nevertheless would be “on the table” if tax rates came down and the economy improved. But that wasn’t the zinger: Romney then pointed out that the oil “subsidy” was just $2 billion, while the Obama administration had dumped $90 billion into green energy projects, many of which haven't worked out that well (see: Solyndra, bankruptcy of).

Romney was, as is almost universally acknowledged, at the top of his game. His advantage, aside from being likeable (yes!), was that he does know about how jobs are created, and it showed. The president's disadvantage is that it doesn't know and now we know that he doesn't know. From Slate:

Romney’s recently maligned Svengali, Stu Stevens, speaks about the president with acidic pity. “I don’t think he had a bad debate,” he says. “He had a bad four years.”

This is a contest between whether we will have a bigger government—“trickle down government,” as Romney characterized it—or return to the free market.