What were Obama’s goals last night? The answer is straightforward: To emerge at the end of 90 minutes looking more presidential than when he started, and to project an aura of confidence and competence on foreign policy and national security. And these things he did in spades. Sure, he rarely drew blood to the extent that many of us thought he might against McCain, but his signal sound bite regarding the Iraq war — “You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shiite and Sunni. And you were wrong” — was plenty strong and went to the heart of his argument that, for all his rival’s experience, McCain’s judgment is very far from perfect.
And what of McCain’s objectives? These too were crystal clear: He sought to paint Obama as dangerously naïve and out of his depth in the ways of world affairs. Its fair to say that McCain scored a few points here, especially in emphasizing his direct engagement on the global stage. But his central point, repeated ad nauseum and nearly ad infinitum — “I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy … What he doesn’t understand … I don’t think that Senator Obama understands … What Senator Obama doesn’t seem to understand … He doesn’t understand … Senator Obama still doesn’t quite understand, or doesn’t get it” — fell as flat as some of his indecipherable insider jokes and senatese. It fell flat because, up there on stage, Obama didn’t come across as a guy who didn’t understand. You could disagree with his point of view, but there was no fumbling or uncertainty or lack of sophistication.