Why Obama Won

If the early polls -- CBS, CNN, PPP -- are to be trusted, President Obama won Monday night's debate in the eyes of people who watched it.

Why?

For starters, on the ostensible subject of the debate -- foreign policy -- Romney played defense. Maybe his internal polls showed undecided voters worrying that he'll blow up the world, but, for whatever reason, he seemed bent on convincing us that he's no more likely to start a war than Obama. Even on Iran, after doing his tough talk -- promising tighter sanctions, saying he would get Ahmadinejad indicted for "genocide incitation," etc. -- he said, "Of course, a military action is the last resort." Again and again he emphasized his alignment with Obama, saying supportive things about the president's policies against al Qaeda and in Afghanistan. And if your argument is that you're no worse than the other guy, it's pretty hard to come away the victor.

True, Romney tried, early on, to make the argument that the world is falling apart on Obama's watch, but he didn't deliver a clear plan for changing that. (He said he wants more "rule of law" and "gender equality" in some Muslim nations. Don't we all?) The combination of aligning himself with Obama on specifics while trying to distinguish himself from Obama via vague aspiration is captured in this Romney riff on Obama's decision to abandon Hosni Mubarak as the Arab Spring swept him from power:

No, I believe, as the president indicated and said at the time, that I supported his -- his action there. I felt that -- I wish we'd have had a better vision of the future. I wish that, looking back at the beginning of the president's term and even further back than that, that we'd have recognized that there was a growing energy and passion for freedom in that part of the world and that we would have worked more aggressively with our -- our friend and with other friends in the region to have them make the transition towards a more representative form of government such that it didn't explode in the way it did. But once it exploded, I felt the same as the president did, which is these -- these freedom voices in the -- the streets of Egypt where the people who were speaking of our principles and the -- the -- President Mubarak had done things which were unimaginable, and the idea of him crushing his people was not something that we could possibly support.

This is the sound of a man trying to tread water and just barely succeeding. Obama sounded more self-assured and more in command of the facts -- partly because, after four years in office, he knows the foreign policy terrain better than Romney, but partly, I think, because he just does commander-in-chief better than Romney. And Romney's repeatedly acknowledging the wisdom of Obama's policies only reinforced that impression. Sometimes it almost seemed like Obama was the self-assured mentor and Romney the nervous protégé. I think most viewers picked up on the difference, whether consciously or subliminally.

Maybe Romney's hope was to secure a tie on foreign policy and steer the debate back to what he considers his home turf -- the economy. And God knows the candidates spent more time on that turf than you'd expect in a foreign policy debate. But they mainly just rehashed arguments we'd already spent two debates getting tired of, so that all seemed like kind of a wash.

Ultimately, I think most viewers judged this foreign-policy debate on -- who would have guessed? -- foreign policy. And there Obama came out on top -- not in the sense of convincing people of the merits of his positions, but just in the sense of seeming like the guy who knew what he was doing.

I don't think Obama won the debate by enough to reverse the momentum that Romney has had for most of the last few weeks, but he may have finally stopped it.

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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