The president has consistently called for a more nuanced view of the world. That means a version of leadership that isn't based simply on taking bold action for the cameras. Sometimes "leading from behind" can be the smart way to go. Simply claiming that the president isn't showing "leadership" is not enough, though that was the essential claim in Romney's foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute entitled "The Mantle of Leadership." There, last month, he said: "It is the responsibility of our president to use America's great power to shape history--not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events.
Similarly, whether a president uses the word "terrorism" or not can warp the debate. If the wording becomes the whole bundle, then you run the risk of forgetting the underlying issues at play. That is what appeared to happen to Romney at the second presidential debate. He was so fixated on the words that when the president proved--with the help of moderator Candy Crowley--that he had indeed uttered the phrase "act of terror," Romney was undone.
But the president is now taking advantage of the cover of words. Winning a verbal sparring match over whether he used the phrase "act of terror" doesn't address Romney's underlying point. There is a question about what the administration knew when. At first, administration officials said there was a protest. There wasn't one. When the president spoke in the Rose Garden on Sept. 12, he appeared to think that the "act of terror" had been provoked by a low-budget movie insulting Muslims. It's more costly politically for the president if his administration didn't know that terrorists were plotting and planning to murder U.S. officials than if the United States simply couldn't protect an embassy from a spontaneous uprising by an enraged mob. Everyone can see why the White House might have been inclined to embrace evidence that suggested this was not a premeditated attack.
The president is stretching our tolerance for the malleability of language. In the second debate, Obama clearly wanted the phrase he uttered in the Rose Garden that day to mean something on Oct. 16 that it didn't mean on Sept. 12, when the president seemed to think the "act of terror" was a spontaneous attack. Without defining what he actually means, the president would now like people to think that by using this phrase he was alive to the idea that this could have been a planned attack.
Romney's mistake was to remain so intensely fixated on the words themselves. By elevating the "T-word" to such significance, he allowed Obama to use it as a shield. The more intelligent debater would have probed what Obama's original statement told us about the president's original assessment of the attack.
When Romney tried to follow-up, to get the president to own up, by questioning him, Obama twice wouldn't answer. "Proceed, Mr. Romney," he said. Obama learned from the first debate when Romney seemed to be contradicting the positions he had taken in the campaign. It was Romney's turn to be struck dumb when the other candidate said something he wasn't prepared for. With one more debate entirely devoted to foreign policy, we haven't heard the last of Libya. Obama and Romney will have had nearly a week to come up with a better answer for Benghazi. Hopefully, when we hear it, it will finally have some ring of truth.