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.
That's not to say Obama couldn't do more to stand up for himself. He spoke at six campaign events in the five days following the debate, and it was only in one speech -- to donors in Los Angeles -- that he mounted a 360-degree, all-points defense of his record.
As for temperament, Obama is less a brash CEO frontman than a behind-the-scenes assembler of the lawmakers, leaders, nations and international bodies he needs to achieve what he wants, whether it's sanctions on Iran or the end of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gay troops. It's a less-than-obvious style of leadership and it's an easy one to scorn and parody -- especially easy now after that debate.
It's also a self-effacing style of leadership. When violence and anti-Americanism are spreading around the world, when the economy remains so punishing to so many, do people want a president who talks about his imperfections and lets an opponent ride roughshod over him? Never mind that presidents have limited influence at best over much of what happens in the economy and the world. There are times they need to project confidence and control -- not to mention passion for the job -- even if they don't feel it.
What Obama let happen in that debate is eerily reminiscent of his 2008 primary-season marathon against Hillary Clinton. He had a chance to wrap up the nomination in January by winning New Hampshire right after his stunning Iowa victory, but he blew it -- in part by skipping the state's famously policy-oriented town halls in favor of huge rapturous rallies. He had another chance to wrap it up in Ohio in early March, but that didn't work out either, in part because his campaign made a long-shot bid to win Texas the same day. With a compelling debate performance last week, Obama might have sown doubts about Romney and cemented his advantage in polls. And we know how that turned out.
Obama limped across the finish line to the Democratic nomination on June 3, 2008, winning Montana and losing South Dakota on that last day of primaries. He won a decisive victory on Election Day in part because he seemed unflappable amid a historic financial crisis. That quality may still hold appeal to many voters, but not when it gets to the point of a Saturday Night Live parody that has Obama declining to comment when Romney claims in a debate that he killed bin Laden.