Wednesday night's debate in Denver was not just the first time Americans got to see the two candidates side by side, free of television commercials and teleprompters. It was also the first opportunity Americans had to contrast how each candidate would govern if elected this November.
Of course, Americans have already seen how Obama has governed: in a completely partisan and divisive manner. Just days after being sworn in, Obama asked Republicans to submit some of their ideas for a stimulus plan. But when then-House Minority Whip Eric Cantor submitted a plan of tax cuts for Americans and their employers, Obama rejected it outright: "I can go it alone," Obama told Cantor. "Look at the polls. The polls are pretty good for me right now. Elections have consequences. And Eric, I won."
After rejecting the Republican ideas, Obama had the audacity to act surprised when not a single Republican voted for the final bill. Cantor told him flatly, "You really could've gotten some of our support. You just refused to listen to what we were saying."
Obama showed again Wednesday that he is not capable of comprehending Republican policy priorities. He proved that he has completely internalized the caricature of Romney that his campaign created when he began the debate by saying, "Gov. Romney has a perspective that says if we cut taxes, skewed towards the wealthy, and roll back regulations, that we'll be better off."
Of course, Romney believes no such thing, and he told Obama exactly that. Many times. Including, "Let me -- let me repeat what I said -- I'm not in favor of a $5 trillion tax cut. That's not my plan. My plan is not to put in place any tax cut that will add to the deficit."
But Obama insisted on telling Romney what was in his own plan. It wasn't until the next day that Obama's deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter, finally admitted that Obama was wrong about Romney on taxes. "OK, stipulated, it won't be near $5 trillion," Cutter told CNN's Erin Burnett under tough questioning.
And on regulations, Romney told moderator Jim Lehrer, "Regulation is essential. You can't have a free market work if you don't have regulation. As a business person, I needed to know the regulations ... Every free economy has good regulations." Again, this position is far from the Ayn Rand caricature that Obama usually uses to attack Republicans.
For his part, Romney successfully outlined how he would reach across the aisle to get work done with Democrats in Washington. "As president, I will sit down on day one -- actually the day after I get elected, I'll sit down with leaders -- the Democratic leaders as well as the Republican leaders. ... We have to work on a collaborative basis -- not because we're going to compromise our principles, but because there's common ground."
Romney did exactly that in Massachusetts, where he worked with an 87 percent Democratic state legislature to cut taxes 19 times. Contrast that approach with Obama, who still did not have presumptive House Speaker John Boehner's cellphone number to call and congratulate him the night Republicans won control of the House in November 2010.
No matter who wins this November, the next president will face two crucial tests of leadership almost immediately. On Jan. 1, taxes are set to rise on the American people by almost half a trillion dollars. Such a tax hike would almost surely send the economy right back into recession. Later that same month, or perhaps in February, the U.S. Treasury will run up against the statutory debt limit.
Washington will need real leadership to defuse these two economic time bombs, and right away. Obama has had four years to address both problems, and he has failed. Does anyone really think he can do it now in just two months?
Conn Carroll (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @conncarroll.