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A Conversation With Obama

Clinton and Obama at the NAACP convention in 2006. (AP)

Part way through our conversation at a recreation center in Keene, N.H., on Monday afternoon, I asked Barack Obama to reflect on what three weeks as the target of attack from his opponents had done to him. I suggested that, while he may not have anticipated the criticism, he had taken to the conflict with considerable enthusiasm.

"I've enjoyed it," he said, flashing a big smile. The debate, he added, has helped to sharpen the contrast "between myself and some of the other candidates in this race."

"Particularly Senator Clinton?" I asked.

"Particularly Senator Clinton," he replied. "And that's hopefully what a good campaign is all about."

Throughout the 40-minute session, Obama was clearly focused on Clinton, and, it seemed, eager to sharpen his differences with her. At no time did he launch an attack on the Democratic front-runner. He was careful in his choice of words and generally respectful of his leading rival. Still, he was anything but timid about pointing out areas of disagreement and projected self-confidence in arguing that he can do politically what Clinton may be incapable of doing.

The case he began to lay out -- that Clinton is too polarizing to bring an end to an era of partisan bickering and legislative gridlock in Washington -- will not be easy for him to prosecute. The more explicit he makes that argument, the more he risks undermining his own message of hope and inspiration -- and his own image as a different kind of politician.

But the issue he has raised is at the root of the choice voters in the Democratic primaries will have to make. That choice has been implicit since the Obama and Clinton entered the presidential race last winter and now, apparently, Obama will seek to make it the front-and-center issue during what he described as the four-month sprint from Labor Day to the Iowa caucuses.

During the interview, I asked Obama whether he was suggesting that Clinton couldn't break out of the partisan gridlock.

"Look, why don't I put it this way," he responded. "When I thought about running, one of the things I asked myself is, what is it that I might be able to do that no other candidate could do, and one of the things I think I can do is break - I think I can redraw the political map. I think I can break out of the 50-plus-one model of electioneering that we've become so accustomed to in presidential politics..."

There then followed some humorous jousting over Clinton's polarizing image, which I introduced into the conversation. Obama at first sought to throw it back. "You just made the point... Go ahead and write the story...You're looking at the same poll numbers I am," he said with a laugh.

But when I reminded him that he had raised the idea a few minutes earlier by suggesting that he was uniquely positioned to break out of the current cycle of partisan warfare, he turned serious. "Yes," he said, "I believe I can bring the country together in a way she cannot do."

It was telling and not surprising that the Clinton campaign chose to respond to Obama's comments by labeling them an attack. The message is that inspirational candidates who attack their opponents are hypocrites.

The more Clinton's team can make Obama seem an ordinary politician, the less his appeal as someone who can change the culture of politics that so many Americans find repugnant.

Obama may recognize all those potential problems, but he is in the race to win. To do that, he must get past Clinton. What has compounded Obama's candidacy is Clinton's performance on the campaign trail.

The latest example of why Obama's task is difficult is playing on television screens in Iowa -- Clinton's first ad. What is striking is the combination of message and demeanor.

Clinton is polarizing not only because of the baggage she carries from the battles during her husband's administration, but also because she can sound polarizing -- as she has at times along the campaign trail and in some candidate forums. Before Democratic audiences, she can be withering in her attacks on the President Bush and Republicans and strident in her language.

The Clinton seen on screens in Iowa is far calmer. She has a tough message -- that Bush has ignored the plight of the middle class -- but also one likely to resonate with Democratic audiences. She delivers it not with a hard edge or harsh tone but with a softer voice. Even some rival strategists acknowledge the ad's potential power to attract support for her candidacy.

Clinton remains the candidate to beat on the Democratic side, but a comment Obama made during the interview provides a small insight into his own sense of possibility about his prospects. "My race for the U.S. Senate," he said, "was much more improbable than my race now for the presidency."

He measures that in the fact that, despite a short resume in national politics, he is in second place in the national polls, competitive in the early states, has raised more money than the Clinton fundraising machine and has far more donors than any other candidate.

Come Labor Day, the race will intensify. Obama will be the target of more attacks. But he gave every indication on Monday afternoon that he is eager to take his case to the voters and to make the choices more explicit than he has in the past. What has been a fascinating Democratic campaign promises to become even more compelling in the days ahead.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  August 15, 2007; 12:45 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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His Mouth Isn't

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eSPO1 All I have to say to you is 9/11 prior to 9/11. A handful of Islamic terrorists will commandeer 5 maybe 6 planes and crash them into the Pentagon, the White House, the Twin Towers and...who knows what else was planned. This would cause many deaths and a huge financial hit on the country as well as change the lifestyle of every citizen in the US and major countries around the world for years to come. Preposterous you would're a nut case...that would be impossible to happen in this midget 5th grader. Frankly, unlike the bleeding heart liberals I agreed with the administration during WWII to isolate the Japanese. Guess what, we didn't have a problem in that area, and who knows what course of history would have been changed if this was not done. The 5th graders were smarter in those days than the liberal college professors are today.
You also did not respond to the other stupid uninformed comments that the empty suit made...pretty scary.
But you did expose me...I confess I am KIM JUNG IL

Posted by: ekim53 | August 16, 2007 4:43 PM | Report abuse

"Ekim" You and the other mental midgets who post this kind of stuff are silly.
"It's really intriguing to me that his name has the implication of "Oh Bomb" in it, his step dad was a Muslim extremist, he did attend a Muslim school and he fits the stereotype charismatic, engaging smile, empty suit politician that the radical extremists think Americans favor. He did "convert" to Christianity...a true change of heart or a necessary step? This also fits the MO of the lending in and causing destruction and all of this happens to come on the scene NOW.."

This is the kind of alarmist garbage we`d expect out of 5th graders.Face it and be honest, you have nothing substantive to try to discredit Barack Obama with so you resort to childish name calling and ridiculous, weak attempts to lump him in with extremists. Your posting as EKIM this means you are actually KIM JUNG IL in disguise ! See how stupid you sound ?..if Barack is extreme in anything it is in his desire to make America a better place for all, that includes all you paranoid types.
Clawrence, I respect your service to the country, however, I think that when you look at Barack and the issues that he has championed you will find that he holds our military,soldiers , and thier families in very high regard.He was one of the most vocal about benefits and healthcare for our vets.Look at his record, look at the context.CLawrence,if your not going to vote for him ,fine, but don`t not vote for him for reasons that are not true.

Posted by: eSPO1 | August 16, 2007 3:33 PM | Report abuse

Obama... Nice smile and voice but an empty suite. Obama actually said he was not endorsing the current Bush policy, which consists solely of air raids and bombing of civilians...WHAT? shouldn't have to go any further to scratch this misinformed candidate off your list. He does appeal to the "touchy feely" Democrat because it never matters to them what's in the suite. He actually said during one of the "debates" that after Iraq FALLS he would have to talk with Syria and Iran...WHAT? But what would he tell them? "You better be good or I'll....I'll er I'll"....Or he could say, "Err Iraq is all yours". It's really intriguing to me that his name has the implication of "Oh Bomb" in it, his step dad was a Muslim extremist, he did attend a Muslim school and he fits the stereotype charismatic, engaging smile, empty suit politician that the radical extremists think Americans favor. He did "convert" to Christianity...a true change of heart or a necessary step? This also fits the MO of the terrorists...blending in and causing destruction and all of this happens to come on the scene NOW...just a coincidence, paranoia? It's certainly more plausible than the President orchestrating 9/11 with all the myriads of people needing to be silenced.

Posted by: ekim53 | August 16, 2007 3:07 PM | Report abuse

Out here in Nevada, I can see the effects of Clinton winning. Even some Democrats hate her. And I will for sure not be knocking on doors or making phone calls on her behalf, because I don't want the constant verbal assault I will get. She has never said what she will do to bring the country together. At the AFL-CIO she talked about fighting the GOP. Well, those spoiling for a fight can go out and campaign for her, but I will not. That's why Obama's message resonates here in Nevada. It is inclusive. He is looking to solve problems and not stay stuck in entrenched ideology. He got cheered in Elko Nevada, a bastion of the rural right. He's got the judgement America needs right now. Clinton has the same old Washington experience.

Posted by: goldie2 | August 16, 2007 12:22 PM | Report abuse

"As a Veteran who served my nation in Bosnia, Kosovo, and OIF - and as a Democrat who lives in IL - he will not get my vote in the Primary, and if on the ticket in the general as VP, the Dems will likely not get my vote, and he has likely lost my vote for his senate reelection unless he apologizes for leaving the impression that the brave men and women serving this nation are indiscriminately killing civilians."


I appreciate your service and your experience. But I suspect your background may have hardened your thinking.

1) You mis-quote him. I'll paraphrase; he was saying that more troops on the ground would lessen the need for airpower.

2) I take it that you believe our troops are owed an apology by Karzai as well, because he has complained about high civilian casualties. Perhaps we should put more pressure on him to shut up and let us win the war for him?

3) Regarding the 'feelings' of the troops, your argument procedes to the point that generals should not be cashiered for incompetence because it might hurt morale. You might ask Lincoln about McClellan.

4) In the end, I'm viscerally disgusted by your line of attack. We'll ask the troops to bleed and die, but God forbid that we risk hurting their feelings in efforts to win the war. This is the kind of political posturing that costs men and women their lives.

Posted by: carringtonward | August 16, 2007 10:29 AM | Report abuse

While in the Senate....

Hillary introduced a bill to ban flag burning


Obama introduced a bill to help veterans get their benefits

he was the person who made the framework of the timetable congress attached to supplemental bills

he passed ethics reform

he passed lobbying reform

and thats just in the U.S. Senate...he did wayyyy more in the IL State Senate

Posted by: SeanFoots | August 16, 2007 8:11 AM | Report abuse

Oh, clawrence35, do you prefer Mrs. clinton. She has no more achievement in creating any legislature, than her 1994 health plan. Or do you prefer senators Dodd, and/or biden? But the last debates were showing that they are willingly cooperating with Mrs. Clinton. They, probably, were promised some key positions in her government in 2009. You, probably, hate Obama mainly because he is not White but Mulatto. Illinois is, unfortunately, full of White Supremacists, whether in Peoria, where their headquarters are, or even outside. White supremacists brought Bush to power, subsequently caused 9/11 and unstoppable bloodshed in Iraq. So, get a grip!

Posted by: aepelbaum | August 16, 2007 2:09 AM | Report abuse

"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome." William Jefferson Clinton

Obama 08!

Posted by: JimmieFromDayton | August 16, 2007 1:57 AM | Report abuse

What a load of BS - not only from Obama, but those writing in to support him as well. Obama DID NOT VOTE against the authorization to invade Iraq, he wasn't even in the Federal Legislature at the time.

In IL, he has endorsed both John Stroger, and then his son Todd after one of the most undemocratic selections, for Cook County Board President (a larger municipal government than most state governments) that is now cutting health care services to the poor while continuing to hire politically connected (mostly family members) in six-figure administrative jobs.

He recently stated that troops in Afghanistan were just bombing villages and killing civilians - and thinks he has a chance of getting the respect of those in the armed forces as the Commander in Chief - (thankfully, that isn't going to happen).

He is seeking to define himself by chastising and ridiculing such accomplished colleagues as Sen. Biden and Sen. Dodd? How exactly have his accomplishments measured up to the service these men, and several others like Sen. Levin and Sen. Reed, have given over the many years?

If he had a chance of winning the nomination, he would prove to one of the most divisive Presidents in history. He represents a fringe far-left wing within the Democratic Party, not independents. Nothing in this campaign is going to change that.

As a Veteran who served my nation in Bosnia, Kosovo, and OIF - and as a Democrat who lives in IL - he will not get my vote in the Primary, and if on the ticket in the general as VP, the Dems will likely not get my vote, and he has likely lost my vote for his senate reelection unless he apologizes for leaving the impression that the brave men and women serving this nation are indiscriminately killing civilians.

Posted by: clawrence35 | August 16, 2007 1:55 AM | Report abuse

As a retired Speech & Language Therapist I have to disagree about Senator Clinton's ad. It is somewhat less strident than her voical quality in the past, but it has a sharp edge that as the ad continues is distracting to the listener. Actually her voice quality in recent debates has been much improved. Before Senator Obama entered the race I was a strong supporter of Senator Clinton; however, I am currently an enthusiastic Obama supporter. I believe his capacity to bring a broad range of diverse views together is real. I have watched his impressive capacity to do so in Illinois for many years.

Posted by: SFT1 | August 15, 2007 10:58 PM | Report abuse

jackhmer, I live in Illinois and obama did health care for those under 18, videotaping interrogations, a profiling law, and ethics.
He has tried to introduce a pull out of Iraq in the us senate, increase benefits for vets, ethics reform in the us senate.
Hillary introduced a flag burning bill.

Posted by: vwcat | August 15, 2007 9:38 PM | Report abuse

Excellent article.
I have to point out the difference in how the people viewed the debates and Hillary in general from the way the insiders do.
In Hillary, I see someone who gives sound bites and double speak but, little substance. she always is working on a plan but, none ever appear. Her answers are just pandering and robotic sound bites.
I and others come away wondering why all of you guys are so gushy. She says nothing and we are still waiting for the beef.
i wish the press would put aside their starry eyes and rah rah pom poms for Hillary and really listen to what she says, or better, doesn't say. She rarely answers the question.
Obama is not a sound bite slick robot. He is real. And to answer the questions to complicated issues takes more than manufactured sound bites.
Because he is not phoney and robot packaged, you guys think he is not good in debates yet, people feel he gives us substance and real answers.
But, none of the press ever talks about our opinion because it is not praising clinton.
It is swept under the rug. More the pity because our opinions should be taken more seriously than the press because it is us, the people, who vote.
By the way, did Obama mention anything about how the press totally misrespresented his remarks in his speech and almost set of an incident because no one bothered to go to cspan and watch the video and get the real remarks. He probably did not but, I think more effort should be put in by your profession on what someone says before mangling it and doing the damage.
Just thought I should let you know.

Posted by: vwcat | August 15, 2007 9:32 PM | Report abuse

Well, jkachmer, Obama has championed ethics reform in government since he entered the Senate, such that the house speaker appointed him the Senate point man on ethics.

I could give you more if you let me look it up. But I wanted to answer your question honestly.

As for Hillary- nothing in the Senate. She has championed NOTHING, ZIP, NADA, NULL, ZERO.

Now don't forget Hillary has been in the Senate 7 years, while barack has been there only three years. As for Obama's State Legislature record, they're so impressive you'll need to see for yourself:

Posted by: zrarieh | August 15, 2007 7:20 PM | Report abuse

I am proud to be an American when I see the way the Iowa straw poll seemed to cut through some of the hype created by the media that was in favor of the over financed candidates.

Back about 1915 or so we had a politician named Woodrow Wilson that accepted a bribe to create the Federal Reserve. They were a group of very powerful bankers and businessmen from around the world at the time. Through the monopoly of being the source of our money and by being outside of our government, or paying any taxes, they have built up a fortune that, I believe, includes owning most of the politicians of the world.

It is going to take a determined, We the People, to restore law and order in our government before we can restore law and order in our streets.

"I am a most unhappy man. I have unwittingly ruined my country. A great industrial nation is controlled by its system of credit. Our system of credit is concentrated. The growth of the nation, therefore, and all our activities are in the hands of a few men. We have come to be one of the worst ruled, one of the most completely controlled and dominated governments in the civilized world. No longer a government by free opinion, no longer a government by conviction and the vote of the majority, but a government by the opinion and duress of a small group of dominant men."

-Woodrow Wilson

Posted by: Stokeybob | August 15, 2007 7:06 PM | Report abuse

We've been waiting for this moment for a long time. We talked about it quietly and now Brack has finally dropped the bombshell.
It's not a war. It's clear and legitimate choice.
You want Washington experience, go for Hillary.
If you want fresh ideas, fresh approach and a breakaway fom the blue states, red states divisiveness, vote Obama.

Posted by: zrarieh | August 15, 2007 6:37 PM | Report abuse

To those that want to give B. Obama a chance, please tell us 5 very important issues he has been a frontrunner for while serving as senator. Can you do this without looking for that information? I ask the same about H. Clinton. What has she been a leader about since taking office as a NY senator? The bickering, namecalling, and constantly talking about each other's views instead of their own, is tactical IMO. It is all about spin. They wait for a blunder and then attack and try to make the other candidate look stupid all the while taking the heat off themselves.

Posted by: jkachmar | August 15, 2007 6:08 PM | Report abuse

Ther he goes again, that rdklingus, slinging baseless crud on Obama,"the media's need for a non-Hillary" ? you've got to be kidding, the media have already appointed hillary the nominee, what are you reading? Why don't you focus your attention on your line up, rudy and co?

Posted by: fnlorrain | August 15, 2007 5:27 PM | Report abuse

I believe we should give Obama some room to show how he is different and argue his points with his rivals. It's the name calling that is negative campaigning and not true disagreements that we should be worried about. Obama is trying to bring hope which means being nice isn't always the answer but it is important for him to be honest and bring us fellow citizens into the debate. I prefer him to fight back and explain his statements when fellow candidates try to distort it even when they have said the same thing. He is right this process is design to put our future president through a simulation of what their life will be like living in a bubble trying to please America and the world which is impossible. Obama brings hope because he has values and common since approach to our problems we face. We actually see ourselves in his thinking and ideas so let's cut him some slack as he goes to defend us and our future.


Posted by: crews2me | August 15, 2007 5:26 PM | Report abuse

The Clinton camp tried many times to tell us that Senators Clinton and Obama are alike and they have the same experiences and had voted on the same issues the same way and that there are no quantifiable differences between the two of them. Now the campaign is saying she it better than him. Which is it? Do they have the same experience or not?

Obama is about turning the page as was JFK and as was Bill Clinton. This is not unusual. When he was running against former President Bush, President Clinton said, "It was time for the new generations to take over". The USA is not about creating a dynasty (Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton). The USA is all about giving the other guy a chance. Give Obama a chance.

Posted by: neilhewitfrancis | August 15, 2007 4:44 PM | Report abuse

"He has shown no leadership in his Senate service to date and somehow thinks that because of the attention he gets from the media and elites in the Democratic party he can carry that to victory."

Funny stuff RD !. The facts are that if more had voted AGAINST authorization of the Iraqi inquisition (like OBAMA did) we would not be facing such a costly fiasco.
He knew this was not where the focus on fighting terrorism should be. We now face a future with the spawn of suicide bombers and worlwide scepticism regarding our morals and motives. No leadership ? What a joke.

Posted by: eSPO1 | August 15, 2007 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Obama is starting to sound like he is falling captive to his own PR. He continues to make comments that sound like his own ego and opportunism, and the media's need for a non-Hillary, are what are fueling his campaign. He has shown no leadership in his Senate service to date and somehow thinks that because of the attention he gets from the media and elites in the Democratic party he can carry that to victory. He is becoming tedious with his Republican-lite jabs at Clinton and the other Democratic candidates and losing his luster in the process.

Posted by: rdklingus | August 15, 2007 4:18 PM | Report abuse

As more and more Americans learn about Barack Obama and his refreshing and realistic views on how to deal with the issues of today the polls will start to reflect the reality of the situation. More donors and more involvemet and then .... critical mass. Anybody that is writing Barack Obama off because he`s not black enough, white enough, or experienced enough (or other garbage) will see just how tired the American people are of "politics as usual". America is a great country that has been sidelined by very poor decisions. Barack has proven that he is in touch with the issues and has solid plans to deal with them. He speaks from his heart and won`t be seen using scripted answeres and rehearsed gestures.In context,his so called ,"gaffes" have proven to be sound methods to accomplish real progress. The supporters of Barack Obama know better than to listen to Polls at this time or pay heed the the spin that the Press is trying to spin. I am confident that todays voting American is not superficial enough to judge Barack by his ethnicity. people who are ignorant enough to make this the criteria by which they select a candidate cannot be called patriots at all. They are placing their antiquated beliefs above the well being of the country and our future.

Posted by: eSPO1 | August 15, 2007 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Dan- that's an interesting read - and a great example of how a blog can supplement more traditional reporting.

Posted by: bsimon | August 15, 2007 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Obama's appeal is due to his inclusiveness, openness, honesty and innovative responses that cut across major dividers in this country. Hillary's lack of appeal and alienating presence is due to her perceived waivering and at times conservative stances on key issues, refusal to admit her mistakes, and reliance on her husband's coattails to ride into a nomination. Until the Senate, she was never an elected official so who's kidding who about experience? A first lady in the White House or the Governor's mansion is not an experienced politician.

Posted by: wgill | August 15, 2007 2:56 PM | Report abuse

You have it wrong, the idea that government with Hillary's insiders is a good sell is ridiculous. Not even her voters will say that.

This campaign is about how much Obama will convince people he can effect the change he speaks of, not that the model he advocates is better than Clinton's.

Posted by: yiannis | August 15, 2007 2:47 PM | Report abuse

It's an interesting argument: The political atmosphere has become so poisonous that only a candidate without any political baggage can draw the two parties together.

I'll admit, even as a non-supporter, the ways in which Obama has endeavoured to turn his lack of experience into an attribute are clever, if not ingenious.

Posted by: mcintire78 | August 15, 2007 2:30 PM | Report abuse

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