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Former Obama aide Goolsbee: President 'wasn't in fighting weight'

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Asked if the president's debate prep team, which included top political advisers and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), had failed the president, Goolsbee acknowledged that the president did not seem polished enough.

"Look, the thing is ultimately it's partly the fault of the prep team but the president's got — it's difficult after four years, you know, you haven't debated. It's a different format," Goolsbee said.

Goolsbee said Romney frequently made points about his tax plan, proposed loan guarantees and Medicare that did not add up — but that "the president just didn't make that clear."

"Granted, it was usually piled on with three or four things at the same time," the University of Chicago economics professor said. "And so the president was kind of responding to the first two of the list. But the fact that you got to the end and hadn't refuted that, I think, was — Romney looked strong and it seemed like the content, which is where the president was going to try to make up the difference, ended up getting muddled and kind of down in the weeds and on a lot of facts the president was correct but it was so intricate that it was muddled."

In an interview earlier with MSNBC, Obama political adviser David Axelrod defended the president's strategy in the debate.

"I understand there was a hunger for us to attack Romney more personally than the president did last night," Axelrod said. "The president was talking to the American people about some of these fundamental issues. As I said, treating the American people as adults."

But Axelrod did pledge the president would be more aggressive in coming debates.

"You know, you can't tell the American people up is down and down is up and ignore your history and ignore your statements," he said. "You can't square the circle, and Gov. Romney is going to be held accountable for that."