10/23/2012 08:42 am ET Updated Dec 23, 2012

What Obama's Win in the Third Debate Drew From His Loss in the First

Barack Obama's performance in the first debate was disastrous, I claimed, because "what he has seen of America since 2009 has broken his heart."

His performance in the final presidential debate was superb for exactly that same reason.

What's different now is that, sometime before the third debate, this man faced and centered himself in the tragic optimism, borne of a broken heart, that is every American's lot and is every great president's even more so.

No president since Lincoln has been able to show this fully to the public without losing his presidency, and Obama seemed to be losing his own by showing it during the first debate. But last night he did what he had to do to communicate and to lead the country around Mitt Romney, most pundits and political consultants, and even those voters, including his own supporters, who haven't faced the tragic truth enough to rise above it rather than run from it.

For those who had eyes to see, Obama's existential command of this challenge was even more impressive than his command of a foreign-policy realism deeper than that of Romney's neo-conservative advisers and donors.

Mitt Romney did see this, I think, in the way any ragingly surreal, typically American fraud occasionally senses his own emptiness before someone wise and strong enough to be shouldering the burden of tragic optimism.

And what is that burden? The philosopher George Santayana characterized the American as "an idealist working on matter," successful in invention, conservative in reform, and quick in emergencies. "There is an enthusiasm in his sympathetic handling of material forces which goes far to cancel the illiberal character it might otherwise assume."

But not far enough, and that's the tragedy that Romney carries so lightly, at disastrous cost to society, as Benjamin Wallace-Wells' remarkably understanding, almost empathetic, portrait of "The Romney Economy" makes clear. Romney's Mormonism takes this very American way of spiritualizing of the material and materializing of the spiritual to surreal lengths, as Chris Lehmann showed memorably in Harpers.

By contrast, although I hate to remind everyone of it, Obama's pastor Jeremiah Wright cried "God damn America!" in the voice of an older, darker, equally American way of juggling the material and the spiritual -- the Puritan way of John Winthrop, from whose congregational churches Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ is descended, and who warned that if Americans succumbed to "carnall lures" they would turn their city upon a hill into a mockery among the nations:

"If we deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world, wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of god and all professours for Gods sake; wee shall shame the faces of many of gods worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into Cursses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whether wee are going,"

The exuberant subversion of this warning is not only Mormonism's doing. It's Ayn Rand's fault, too. And it's the fault of American jurisprudence that, as I showed here after the first debate, miscasts algorithmically driven, civically mindless business corporations as "persons" whose "speech" the First Amendment was supposedly crafted to protect.

Romney and Ayn Rand's apostle Paul Ryan throw into high relief what this country has become, what Winthrop warned us against becoming. Obama understands this more deeply than almost anyone, and his performance in the first debate was a casualty of his disinclination to suffer fools who propose to tackle this society's problems with refreshed ignorance of the truth that a country is not a company.

But Obama cannot say "God damn America!" He cannot be frank about how far off the cliff our legislative and jurisprudential construction of business corporations has taken us. He has to sustain an optimism that is aware of its own tragedy but rises above it. In the third debate, he did it.