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The Commander In Chief, Trying To Reassert Command

If you had somehow managed to avoid the entire presidential campaign for the past few weeks—had, say, gone to fight with the rebels in Syria—and returned to see the final presidential debate, you would probably assume that Barack Obama was cruising to reelection. You would see an incumbent president confidently and proudly holding forth about how he had managed to rebuild the country's standing in the world, gotten us out of one war and halfway out of another, and, not without some difficulties, helped usher in a new era in the Arab world. You would see a challenger pulling punches, finding agreement as much as difference with the incumbent, looking quite a bit unsteady (with even a hint of Nixonian dampness on the upper lip) and generally seeming like someone playing for a gentleman's second place.

But of course that's not where the race is at. It is more or less tied, with at best a slight edge for Obama on the Electoral College map. Which leant an air of surreality to the event in Boca Raton. And at moments one sensed that Obama felt the surreality as well. As he was hammering Romney over and over—for his anachronistic view of the world, for his "all over the map" stances on Afghanistan and so much else, for his empty talk of military buildup (equating Romney's lament about the bygone Navy to talk of "horses and bayonets")—one half expected him to suddenly stop and paraphrase another Democratic candidate's Saturday Night Live moment: "I can't believe I'm almost losing to this guy!"

How to explain Obama's dominance? Well, for one thing, he's clearly learned the lesson of the first listless debate in Denver, learned it so well that it's almost a pity that he will likely never perform in another debate in his entire life. The oratorical adjustments alone are striking—how many "ums" did you hear tonight from the country's leading um-ster? Not many. There was also the motivation of finding himself in the biggest political fight of his life and knowing he needed to press his advantage as far as he could. More than all that, though, I suspect there was the assertiveness that comes with the sense of ownership and authority that the president has developed around this whole part of his job. Remember, before Obama became a community organizer in Chicago and a student of the country's domestic plight, he was a young man of the world, sitting in his sarong in Jakarta on a post-college visit to his mother, stopping off in Pakistan to see his friends in Karachi. He put himself on the map giving a speech against the war in Iraq; in the Senate, one of the few issues that held his attention was nuclear disarmament. Even before he stepped into the White House, this was a realm he thought himself well versed in.

And four years into his term, that ownership is of course multiplied exponentially, not only because of everything he's been through—bin Laden, the European debt crisis, the Arab Spring, the dramas with Netanyahu—but because of how this whole front compares with the home one. Something that's become so plain these last few months is how acutely Obama is aware of how far he's fallen short on the domestic side, not only with the economic recovery but with his whole vision for transforming politics. Whereas, for all the troubles abroad—the Syrian bloodbath, the Benghazi attack, etc.—he surely believes he's achieved real progress. And finds it galling as hell, no doubt, that this former private equity man who managed to offend England over the Olympics and is being tutored by Dan Senor, the former Bush spokesman in Baghdad, may be on the verge of taking the country back to the disastrous Bush ways. Obama could barely contain his scorn in riffs such as this one:

Governor Romney, I'm glad that you recognize that Al Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not Al Qaida; you said Russia, in the 1980s, they're now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War's been over for 20 years. But Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.
You say that you're not interested in duplicating what happened in Iraq. But just a few weeks ago, you said you think we should have more troops in Iraq right now. And the — the challenge we have — I know you haven't been in a position to actually execute foreign policy — but every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong. You said we should have gone into Iraq, despite that fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction.
You said that we should still have troops in Iraq to this day. You indicated that we shouldn't be passing nuclear treaties with Russia despite the fact that 71 senators, Democrats and Republicans, voted for it. You said that, first, we should not have a timeline in Afghanistan. Then you said we should. Now you say maybe or it depends, which means not only were you wrong, but you were also confusing in sending mixed messages both to our troops and our allies.

That's quite the howitzer there. What was most surprising about the debate, though, was not Obama's assertiveness but Romney's response—hanging back to the point of seeming at times to stall out entirely into a stream of barely meaningful boilerplate, stuff that left even the aggressive Obama with nothing to work with for entire stretches of the evening. Romney conspicuously avoided going back to the well on the Benghazi attacks, despite calls from his side to do so even after last week's stymied gambit in the second debate; he offered grudging praise for Obama's stance on Israel, without his usual dark warnings about the president leaving our ally out to dry; his mild critique of the administration's Afghanistan withdrawal plans explicitly exempted Obama from the unnamed "people" who are pressing for a rash exit; he declined to even try to answer Bob Schieffer's question about why he wanted to spend much more than Obama on the military.

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What are we to make of such a neutered, underwhelming turn? The spin that the Romney side was offering afterwards that Romney was deliberately playing it safe because he believes he is pulling ahead of Obama. But this seems insufficient as an explanation: after all, even as unserious a sports fan as Romney knows that you don't sit on the ball when the score is tied. There was more involved than that. There was, for one thing, Romney's awareness of his unsteadiness in this area. This should not necessarily be fatal—there is often an inherent unevenness on foreign policy between a challenger and an incumbent who can put on commander-in-chief airs, as Obama likes to. But Romney seems to feel his inadequacy on this score quite keenly, and sense that he would be putting himself at real peril by pressing too far out of his comfort zone.

And then there is his general bent toward the middle. Just as his team has decided the time had come for him to make a brazen tack to a moderate tone on tax cuts, abortion and much more, it also clearly decided that it was time for him to strike a less hawkish tone on the Middle East, Russia, the military budget and more. But the Etch-a-Sketch may be harder to execute on foreign policy. On domestic matters, it may give some swing voters the assurance that Romney is returning to the Massachusetts Moderate of yore. On foreign policy, though, it leaves him open to Obama's charge that he is "all over the map"—that is, not so safe at all, but rudderless and adrift.

Moreoever, the turn toward a more conciliatory tone abroad causes more of an unwelcome blurring with the incumbent. No matter how much Romney Etch-a-Sketches on domestic matters, he can assure voters of one great difference with Obama: he will deliver them a better economy. Whereas his soft turn in Boca Raton surely left some voters wondering what he was offering that was any different than the president, who was able to state the same general approach in a much more commanding way.

This may all not matter much, if the minds are all made up. But the last time a candidate decided to mail it in at a debate, thinking the campaign's narrative was more or less fixed for the duration, it didn't turn out that well for him.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis