Andrew Sullivan has freaked out over Obama’s precipitous drop in one well-regarded poll. I’m a huge Dish fan and Andrew may reflect my views more than any pundit out there. I’m not alone–this morning I could hear NPR in the background talking about Andrew Sullivan, and can imagine Obama saying to David Axelrod, “If I’ve lost Sullivan, I’ve lost the country.” Well, maybe not.

Anyway, Andrew is harsh. There’s this:

Seriously: has that kind of swing ever happened this late in a campaign? Has any candidate lost 18 points among women voters in one night ever? And we are told that when Obama left the stage that night, he was feeling good. That’s terrifying. On every single issue, Obama has instantly plummeted into near-oblivion.

And this:

Look: I’m trying to rally some morale, but I’ve never seen a candidate this late in the game, so far ahead, just throw in the towel in the way Obama did last week – throw away almost every single advantage he had with voters and manage to enable his opponent to seem as if he cares about the middle class as much as Obama does. How do you erase that imprinted first image from public consciousness: a president incapable of making a single argument or even a halfway decent closing statement? And after Romney’s convincing Etch-A-Sketch, convincing because Obama was incapable of exposing it, Romney is now the centrist candidate, even as he is running to head up the most radical party in the modern era.

He even finds an old USA Today story wherein Obama complains about the tedium of debate preparations.

Andrew is off the mark here for several reasons: First, he overestimated Obama to begin with. He’s always been a B-minus president, to be supported because he wasn’t George W. Bush or John McCain, and because unlike Hillary Clinton he had the good sense to oppose the Iraq war. But not because he was the historic transformational figure many yearned for. But Andrew has invested rather heavily in the idea that Obama is the Democrats’ Reagan, or more, so to see him come up short stings far more than it would if the president’s strengths and weaknesses had been more prudently assessed.

Secondly Obama’s debate performance was not as weak as Andrew makes it out to be. I have a family member who heard it with her housemates on the radio (from a farm in New Mexico) and they thought it a draw. Not bad, seeing as Obama was forced to confront a completely different Romney than the one who had been running for the past 18 months, and had to decide on the fly how to deal with that new phenomenon. Of course visual optics matter (recall, famously, Kennedy’s triumph over Nixon, though the latter “won” the debate on radio). But optics can be more easily improved than a problem of Obama having nothing coherent to say.

Moreover, the drawbacks of C-plus level debate performance get magnified by the media. Robert Wright here does some digging through last week’s polls–and finds, unsurprisingly, that Obama’s sharp drop off came not so much after the debate but after the media framed the debate as a complete wipeout for Obama. Key finding:

Still, it’s notable that the two most prominent tracking polls showed no pro-Romney movement in the numbers that included Thursday’s polls but showed pronounced pro-Romney movement in the numbers that included Friday’s polls.

The upshot is that Obama won’t be able to rope-a-dope through the election. He no longer will be ceded the advantage of being the candidate who can best “reach across the aisle” to make a budget compromise–which, in truth, was hardly a strength of his to begin with. To prevail he will have to take real risks and draw real distinctions. Dan McCarthy has pointed out with precision that Romney’s foreign policy visions, if pursued, will consume his presidency. They will do huge damage to the country as well–if you liked George W. Bush’s foreign policy, you’ll love Romney’s. Obama and his surrogates need to point this out. Again and again. Even if Debbie Wasserman Schultz doesn’t like it.