The most lingering impression of last week’s presidential debate surprise was that President Obama was unable to articulate a defense of his record of the past four years or a coherent promotion of his plans for the next four years.

From the next day on, the media have stayed on the story of that debate and Obama’s failure to deliver, though the tenor and spin of the reporting changed.

CNN tried to inject potential responses the president might have made into its coverage. This is the kind of editorializing that belongs in opinion pieces.

Obama had a chance to brush his opponent back by hammering home the fact that Romney has been strikingly vague in explaining just how he would pay for an across the board 20% tax cut without cutting cherished tax deductions.

Instead, a lethargic Obama veered into a plodding, numbers-based criticism of Romney’s tax plan that was a far cry from his campaign trail rallying cries about how Republicans favor the rich.

And that’s only one example from that piece.

Others did the same.

Neither Obama nor the debate’s moderator, meanwhile, pressed Romney on some of his most vulnerable points. They included Romney’s claim that 47 percent of Americans are docile dependents on the government, a topic heavily featured in TV ads and public conversations the past two weeks.

It’s not their job to fill in for points the president failed to make.

It’s their job to question and probe.

Democrats are trying to recover from President Barack Obama’s debate disaster by asking the question, “Was that the real Mitt Romney?”

But given how poorly the president played, the better question is, “Was that the real Barack Obama?”

If you match the president’s performance in Denver with the performance of the country under his leadership, it’s obvious the answer to the latter question is “yes.”

Spared by a compliant media from the intense scrutiny presidents normally receive, Obama and his handlers have been able to craft for him the mythological persona of a deliberative and decisive overachiever whose brilliance enables him to adapt and respond to complex situations.

But when the curtains opened Wednesday night, Obama faced an opponent intent on exposing the myth.

A president accustomed to softballs for the first time had to answer tough questions and rebuff fact-based challenges.

He collapsed, unprepared for accountability.

That’s not just a one-time, one-night thing.

Lack of preparation dogs the Obama presidency. He doesn’t do his homework.

The consequences of his signature legislation, Obamacare, were so poorly thought out that nearly every piece of it is being rewritten even as it’s being implemented to keep it from killing jobs and taking down the economy.

Bob Woodward’s new book, “The Price of Politics,” details how Obama’s indecision and disengagement derailed a budget deal that could have averted the debt ceiling crisis and the credit downgrade.

And so on.

Now the vice-presidential debate follows. And as the New York Times puts it, this debate provides the Obama team an opportunity to recover.

President Obama’s campaign is working feverishly to restore its momentum after a lackluster debate performance last week, an effort that began with a conference call 10 minutes before the debate even ended and led to new advertisements, a rewritten stump speech, a carefully timed leak and a reversal of months-old strategy…

Under the tutelage of David Axelrod, the president’s chief strategist who is personally overseeing the preparations, Mr. Biden will be counseled on how to avoid Mr. Obama’s mistakes and even correct them with a more aggressive prosecution of the Republican ticket. Mr. Axelrod’s involvement highlights the stakes the Obama campaign places on the debate, and Mr. Biden has been reading “Young Guns,” the book co-written by Mr. Ryan, and practicing attack lines that Mr. Obama avoided.

The attack has become a more central focus.

On the conference call convened by aides in Denver and Chicago even as the candidates were still on stage, there was no debate in the Obama campaign about the debate. None of the advisers fooled themselves into thinking it was anything but a disaster. Instead, they scrambled for ways to recover. They resolved to go after Mr. Romney with a post-debate assault on his truthfulness. Ad makers were ordered to work all night to produce an attack ad. And they would seize on Mr. Romney’s vow to cut financing for Big Bird.

Seriously. They did all of that.

There wasn’t as much post-debate assault on the truthfulness of whatever Mr. Obama said. But the new campaign launched by the Obama team with a complicit media scuttled that to make a concerted attack on Mr. Romney.

The case that Romney lied so brazenly that it undid the president who prides himself on his rhetorical genius rests, first, on the idea that the Republican misrepresented his own tax-reform plan. The president said that Romney proposes to cut taxes by $5 trillion over ten years. Romney denied it. The president’s team responded, with its customary civility and nuance: “Liar!”

But this isn’t even a close call. Romney wants to cut income-tax rates 20 percent across the board and make up the revenue by closing loopholes and deductions. This isn’t a tax cut; it’s a wash. It’s been Romney’s plan ever since he proposed it during the Republican primaries. It’s such a simple concept that only willful obtuseness keeps the president or his team from understanding it.

If Romney proposed a 1 percent across-the-board cut on rates and the elimination of all loopholes and deductions, surely President Obama would accuse him of wanting to raise taxes, not cut them, because people would be paying more in taxes despite lower rates. In fact, this is the approach of the president’s own Simpson-Bowles debt commission, with which he should have some passing familiarity. The commission suggested lower rates and fewer deductions such that the federal government would garner more revenue. This isn’t a tax cut either.

Let’s have a robust debate on the differences the two men have on how to handle the debt, the deficit, taxes, jobs, and the size and role of government. But let it be based on facts.

Democrats have convinced themselves that all the president needs to do to come roaring back in the next debate is rebut Romney’s dishonesties, which will expose his indefensible agenda and shallow reinvention. The president’s team evidently underestimated Romney once already. If it believes this “lying liar” interpretation of the debate — rather than pushing it in the media for lack of anything else to say — it will underestimate him yet again.

Just don’t underestimate the American people.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....