Autumn has arrived for the president’s unfulfilled promises

There was a stiff, crisp breeze in the air as the audience attending Wednesday’s much-anticipated presidential debate poured out of the University of Denver and onto University Avenue.

The protestors that had lined these streets earlier — a slew of youngish Republicans spoofing Obamacare, a rally mocking Romney’s wealth and hair, a critical mass proclaiming Mitt was a menace to the reproductive rights of women — were all long-gone now. They had retreated to the couch or a friendly tavern to watch the contest, nudged no doubt by a cool, cutting wind that on this very day had sent summer packing for the year.

In the courtyard that, mere hours before, had been a sunshine-soaked cacophony of free expression, it was now surprisingly quiet. A sparsely attended outdoor MSNBC set here, a charter bus or two over there, outhouses everywhere — other than that, so very few people.

As I walked quickly to my truck after the debate, freshly buzz-cut head smarting from the new chill, I told an old friend that I had earlier bumped into, “It’s official, summer’s gone and fall is here.” A hand shake, a brief debate post-mortem and a “see you later” ensued, and off I went.

But it wasn’t only outside where stiff winds were sweeping away what had once been.

Inside that hall, where the leaders of our divided America squared off earlier in the evening, the slowly-cementing conventional wisdom of a nation had received an unmistakable shaking of its own. Because in that hall, in front of a fumbling moderator and 50 million some-odd members of the American family, the curtain had been pulled back on the presidency of Barack Obama.

His promises of hope and change and post-partisanship and all the rest had been put on trial by an energetic and in-command Mitt Romney.

Obama’s defense — lackadaisical, detached, as if uninterested in the stakes of it all — seemed to be that of a man pleading no-contest.

And when the trial was done, the verdict was swift, sure and overwhelming. More than losing an argument, Obama the Icon had been pummeled — like Biden’s middle class.

Even his most ardent admirers agreed. They wondered: How could the greatest orator in the history of the presidency have been defeated so decisively?

Perhaps he was tired. Perhaps he took his opponent too lightly.

Perhaps he had no credible arguments to make in his own defense.

When the debate ended, I quickly turned on my phone. A low battery light and a cascade of texts and emails greeted me.

“Well?”

“Can you believe this?”

“Oh my God! We’re back.”

“What’d you think?”

I quickly responded:

“You know that picture of President Obama as a student, the one with him leaning against the wall with book under arm, too cool for school? That was the unmistakable vibe the president gave tonight. Jim Lehrer should have asked, ‘Are we bothering you, Mr. President?’ Aloof might be too strong, but not by much. Romney wasn’t Reagan, but he really was rock solid. Maybe a little over-technical at times, but even there, he showed an enthusiasm, a passion for the task that was conspicuously missing in the president.”

After I got home and put my daughter to bed, I headed for the TV. I wanted to see the debate the way everyone else had.  And when I did, I realized that I was wrong. For Romney, it was better; for Obama, worse. The camera knows not how to lie.

Romney — a happy warrior, learned, earnest, eager, funny. At times, yes, even like Reagan.

Obama — shifty, agitated, unwilling to man-up and look his foe in the eye, like a too-smart college professor giving the decided impression that he is telling you something you should already know.

And maybe that was the president’s problem on this historic night. Romney methodically explained why the promises of Obama — those pledges Obama thought he had already convinced us of — were simply not so.

On this the evening, when autumn first invited itself to Colorado, the winds of political change were also blowing. On this night at least, it was impossible not feel as if the autumn hour had arrived, too, for the lofty, inspiring and utterly unmet promises of the presidency of Barack Obama. Soon enough, we will know.

Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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