I don't think he had a particularly bad debate. He's had a bad four years.
That's how Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney's top aide, summed it up, and that pretty much captures it. The president didn't have much to work with, and you can only go on making chicken salad out of chicken feathers for so long. You had to wonder, while watching the debate, if the president might not have been anticipating more bad news, say in the form of Friday's employment numbers, and known that if he came on strong and optimistic, then he might be shown as clueless and hapless less than 48 hours later. Hard to make "stay the course," sound inspirational when everyone in the crew can see you are headed for the rocks.
In an interesting mood experiment, I spent the hour prior to the debate watching Ron Howard's masterpiece, Apollo 13, and switched over right after Tom Hanks spoke the memorable line, "Houston, we have a problem." Those who were not alive then, or were too young to remember, would probably have a hard time believing that those were difficult times in the nation's history. But the country was tougher than the times. An explosion in deep space was not something that Americans couldn't overcome with a little duct tape, ingenuity, and grit.
I found myself thinking, after I'd switched over to the debate, that I wouldn't mind hearing one of the candidates say, "This is America. If we can send men to the moon ..." It is an old formulation, exceedingly overused. But it gets to something that has been missing for the last four years and maybe longer than that. A certain vitality. We can send men–and women–to the moon, even if we are out of practice. Time, maybe, to stop moping and get back to it. Metaphorically, if not in actual practice (which might not be a bad idea) and to put the gloom of the last four years behind us.