Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

Political wisdom says that debates are about “moments” — those interchanges that make the highlight reels, the memorable exchanges that best illustrate who won or who lost. Average voters may not remember the policy details or the substance of the responses, but they will remember who had the best line, the best comeback or the best body language when defending an attack.

Tuesday night’s debate was full of such moments, from the president’s line about the size of his pension to moderator Candy Crawley’s real-time fact checking of the back-and-forth about Libya. But the best leadership moment of the night by far — the moment when one candidate or the other showed us how they protect the team of people they lead — came when Romney attacked the president for his conduct following the attacks in Libya.

Noticeably angry, the president retorted that “I was there greeting the caskets coming into Andrews Air Force Base and grieving with the families. And the suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the Secretary of State, our U.N. Ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive,” Obama said. “That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president, that’s not what I do as Commander in Chief.” In four sentences, the president’s response showed more emotion and more fight than the entire first debate as a whole.

But it was not just Obama’s steely eyed presence, or his reminder that it was he who was there greeting the coffins on their return, that made the retort such a powerful leadership moment. Rather, it was the way in which he became visibly angered by what appeared to be questions about the character of the people on his team. Of course the president reacted in part to his own integrity being doubted, but he appeared most offended by accusations against those who serve him.  

When you stop and think about it, for all their importance in deciding presidential elections, debates really don’t tell us much about how someone will do in the job. Being president does not involve giving well-worded, convincing two-minute answers on a variety of well rehearsed topics. It does not include sparring with an opponent in front of an audience of people and making petty arguments about who got the most time.

As a result, it is the flashes of policy substance and the moments of character revelation that tell us most about what the two men on the stage would be—or are—like as leaders. And in that remark, the president made it clear he is the type of leader who fiercely defends the reputation not only of his own character but of his team’s when it is called into question.

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