1. As with many things, it really is much harder than it looks. I've done a few of these in my time, not televised (and certainly not in front of 55 million people). Like Jeopardy!, Chopped, or whatever game show you favor, there is a huge difference between watching at home and being in the heat of it. Sure, it would have been brilliant for Obama to say after Romney told Lehr he was going to cut federal funding for PBS: "You're gonna give Big Bird a pink slip? Man, you do like firing people." But that is the kind of response that is much easier to come up with at home than under the lights.
And speaking of under the lights, it is really, really hard to know how you are going to look on camera in a multi-camera environment when you never know if the camera is on you or on someone else.
1a. This doesn't change the fact that when you go into a career where this kind of stuff is important, being only average when your opponent is good puts you one down. No excuses, but it is important to take this into account before jumping to conspiracy theories or asking "Where was Obama!" It also means that if you expect to be weak here, you need to be stronger elsewhere.
2. This kind of forum also plays well to some kinds of personalities and strengths rather than others. Obama is a thoughtful, wonky guy. In certain instances, the "No Drama Obama" persona works well for him. At other times, it works poorly. But it does not seem to be something he can magically turn on or off at will. Whatever it is that made him the person he is today, one element of his core personality is that he is very tightly controlled.
2a. Instead of trying to change that, Obama and his team need to figure out how to make it work for him. Cool and calm can work, and there are a whole bunch of little tricks a media expert can give Obama for how to use his aristocratic presence effectively and project authority in the face of brashness. But the strategists are worried that Obama comes off as too elitist (a problem with serious focus group support). But you can't make him something he isn't.
3. The sad truth is that Mitt Romney lived a life that gives him the CEO-type attitude that came out in the debate -- include the fluency to say stuff with great conviction (even if it totally contradicted other stuff he said with equal conviction), and the ability to break the rules and tweak the moderator without worrying about it. Obama succeeded in a culture that regard much of this behavior as threatening and "uppity." That's not all race, btw. A law firm is not the place to trot out the kind of CEO-type behavior that Romney had on display (believe me, I know). But race is certainly a part of it. Obama succeeded in a world that will accept a thoughtful black man from Harvard Law, but not an angry black man from Harvard Law.
4. It will be interesting to see the VP debate. Expectations are low for Biden, high for Ryan. Biden is older, which means Ryan can't come off to brash or disrespectful (age is another contextual factor for language and body language, as is gender and race -- sorry if this seems unfair, but it's how our culture (and human society generally) works. Mass media blurs this because it forces us into an artificial national culture that eliminates regional and local variants as well as obscuring a lot of non-verbal cues despite the feeling of immediacy).