I hardly ever watch televised politics. I skipped both conventions. Last night's was the first presidential debate that I have ever watched in my life (OK, I think I caught a little Reagan-Mondale back in 1984). I get my news, including political news, from the Internet. So I mostly get snippets—and the snippets I've seen of Obama practically ever since he took office have been mostly, well, snippy. I've seen him too often testy, defensive, irritated at reporters who asked him tough questions, and lashing out at Republicans for not going along with every program he wanted to push. (Isn't that what Republicans are supposed to do? Isn't that why their constituents voted for them instead of Democrats?)

That Obama was nowhere to be seen last night. Instead I saw—really for the first time—why so many Americans who weren't dyed-in-the-wool leftists, and some of whom were Republicans, had taken a chance four years ago on this personally affable, reasonable-sounding man with a string of Ivy degrees who promised "hope" and "change." Last night Obama nearly came off as the centrist that even some conservatives had thought he was in 2008.

Of course, there was nothing centrist at all about the substance of what Obama was saying last night, and as for "change," there was basically no change: The same old tax hikes and government "investments in" (i.e. spending on) this and that which have characterized his goals over the past four failed years. There were the same old diatribes against "profits." Obama's late grandmother figured yet again—and again—as a prop, this time for the current Social Security system, which Obama claimed was the only thing that stood between her and penurious dependency, even though she had been vice president of a bank. Obama wants to hire "100,000" new math and science teachers at federal taxpayer expense. That's nice for the teachers' unions. His defense of Obamacare, with its panel of 15 unaccountable "experts" telling every physician in America how he or she ought to practice medicine, sounded scarier than ever. Commentators on the debate remarked that Obama seemed tired. Actually, it was what he was offering that seemed tired.

That's too bad, because last night we caught a rare glimpse of what a presidential debate—and politics in general—ought to be: a civilized exchange of ideas about how to make better an America that both parties cherish. It's too bad for Obama that he didn't have a better, or at least newer, set of ideas.

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