A reader, to my mind, nails it:
I keep coming back to a moment I think was the most important of the debate, and in some ways, Obama’s whole presidency. When he called Romney’s accusations of politicizing Libya “offensive,” I pumped my fist in the air, thrilled. Then, when I found myself going back to that moment again and again, I wondered why it was so powerful.
Yes, the language was probably planned and practiced, yes it was partly political theater, but it reinforced something about this leader that I think many of us feel, even if we’re not always aware of it. For all the complaints we have about Obama, especially in the conduct of domestic policy, one thing he demonstrates to me, and it’s the reason I revere him more than Bill Clinton, is that he makes careful, patient, principled — and practical — decisions, waits patiently for them to bear fruit, and when they do, he trusts the public to analyze and understand what he’s accomplished on their own. Libya, tellingly, happens to be high on the list.
There was no crowing about the delicately coordinated bombing campaign (and the covert actions on the ground which helped it succeed) that brought down a tyrant. No “Mission Accomplished” banners, no bold predictions about the future of a remade Middle East thanks to our military efforts. But Obama got results. For less than a thousandth of the cost of Iraq, and with no lives lost until September 11th, Obama gave us a democratically elected Arab ally, an ally whose people — not their leaders, their people — are so grateful for what America did and how we did it, that after the death of our Ambassador they poured into the streets in outrage, and attacked the Islamic militias responsible.
No the story’s not over. But name another Arab country where you’ve seen anything remotely similar. What political hay does Obama make out of all this? Very little. Then or since. (To my great frustration, frankly.) After the ambassador dies, Obama’s language is full of firmness, but also restraint and moderation, and zero politics. Mitt Romney’s language? The opposite. Obama trusts us to use our eyes and give credit where it’s due.
His anger in that moment, theatrical or not, was about something deeper. At least it was for me. There must be something horribly galling to our president about being called out for an absurdly minor offense (if it even was one) in the context of a huge foreign policy triumph. It should be galling to us too. We fail to appreciate this president’s exceptional character at our own peril.