The president is a nuanced, self-effacing coalition builder. That temperament works well in office but flops on the stump.
Mitt Romney used the word "lead" or a variation on it 18 times in his foreign-policy speech at Virginia Military Institute Monday. President Obama, he said, is leading passively from behind, "leaving our destiny at the mercy of events."
There are many ways to counter that contention, from the drone strikes and Bin Laden raid ordered by Obama to his intervention in Libya and successful push for tough sanctions against Iran. But leadership optics are a different matter. Romney has those down cold, while Obama -- the actual president -- is struggling.
It is true that simply repeating the word "leadership" and promising to "lead" do not a leader make, but Romney's foreign-policy speech gained resonance because of its timing. He cast Obama as weak and pledged to be strong. It was easier to believe in the wake of his commanding debate performance, during which he pounded and in some cases distorted Obama's record for 90 minutes, and barely elicited a response.
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Obama is capable of seizing the moment; his speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month was a good example of that. But his leadership style is constrained by both his position and his temperament. He can't stand up and brag that the CIA is helping make sure Syrian anti-government fighters are armed, as The New York Times reported the agency is covertly doing. That leaves Romney space to say he'd do more to make sure the fighters are armed.