Salena Zito, a reporter with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, watched Mitt Romney's Wednesday morning news conference from a diner in Wisconsin. Customers paid careful attention to the TV as reporters repeatedly asked Romney if he had made a mistake by criticizing President Obama's handling of the embassy crises in Egypt and Libya. The exchanges left no doubt that Romney's questioners thought he had made a mess of the situation.
But Zito found an entirely different reaction in the diner. "People were just floored by the press," she says. "The group was pretty mixed between Obama supporters and Romney supporters, and even the Obama supporters were astonished by how they felt the press was driving the story. One guy said, 'My God, six out of seven questions were the same question.' Another guy said, 'Why aren't they asking him anything serious?' "
What Zito saw was entirely anecdotal; maybe she just found a group of people who coincidentally thought the same thing. But the reactions at the diner raise a question: There's a near-consensus among the political class that Romney made a disastrous error in the embassy matter. But what do actual voters think?
It's too early to know the answer; Scott Rasmussen, who conducts a daily tracking poll on the race, saw no change in Romney's standing on national security issues the night after the controversy broke. (Rasmussen's Wednesday night polling found Romney leading Obama overall for the first time in a week, but by just a single point, 47 percent to 46 percent.) Still, there is no reason to assume the voters as a whole think like a small group of Washington- and New York-based journalists.
Riding a wave of media approval, Obama shows no outward signs of worry about the increasingly volatile situation for Americans in the Middle East. On the same day he announced the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya, and as protesters returned to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, the president flew to Las Vegas for a little campaigning.
Speaking to a group of volunteers, Obama seemed to equate the fight for his re-election with America's long history of fighting for freedom. "The sacrifices that our troops and our diplomats make are obviously very different from the challenges that we face here domestically," the president told his campaign workers. "But like them, you guys are Americans who sense that we can do better than we're doing."
There's no doubt the president has the upper hand when it comes to national security issues. A Fox News poll released Wednesday shows Obama has a huge advantage over Romney on foreign policy; by a margin of 54 percent to 39 percent, voters say Obama can better handle the issue.
Whatever his outer confidence, though, Obama is in a potentially dangerous situation. Americans don't like to see foreign mobs scale the wall of an embassy, tear down the American flag and replace it with an Islamic banner. And they're horrified by the murder of American diplomats. The Obama administration's initial response to trouble in Egypt -- a statement fretting about an Internet video that might hurt Muslim feelings -- really did sound weak and irrelevant.
If troubles continue -- if the Arab Spring continues to unravel -- Obama's policy of restraint could increasingly look like impotence. His much-touted outreach to the Muslim world could look naive and misguided. And Romney's critique of Obama's leadership -- that it has often involved apologizing for past American actions -- could seem more on target.
Already, events in Libya and Egypt invite more scrutiny. The public still doesn't know exactly what transpired in the hours around Stevens' death, nor is much known about the nature of American security measures, other than they were obviously inadequate. The final story might not reflect well on the administration.
As far as the storm over media coverage is concerned, the fact is that actual events, and not campaign reporting, will determine the course of public opinion on Obama's foreign policy leadership. Yes, Romney advisers are unhappy with the press. But Obama's policies are being put to a test in a way that no spin can obscure. If Romney has the better proposals, voters will get the idea by Nov. 6.
For years, Romney mapped out a campaign based on economic issues. Barring some enormous, unexpected event, the race is still largely about the economy. But the events of this week have shown Romney how quickly the subject can change, at least for a while. And just like those diners in Wisconsin, voters will be most swayed by the substance, not the coverage, of events.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.