A Conversation With Obama
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.
Posted by: ekim53 | August 16, 2007 4:43 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: eSPO1 | August 16, 2007 3:33 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: ekim53 | August 16, 2007 3:07 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: goldie2 | August 16, 2007 12:22 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: carringtonward | August 16, 2007 10:29 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: SeanFoots | August 16, 2007 8:11 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: aepelbaum | August 16, 2007 2:09 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: JimmieFromDayton | August 16, 2007 1:57 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: clawrence35 | August 16, 2007 1:55 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: SFT1 | August 15, 2007 10:58 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: vwcat | August 15, 2007 9:38 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: vwcat | August 15, 2007 9:32 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: zrarieh | August 15, 2007 7:20 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Stokeybob | August 15, 2007 7:06 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: zrarieh | August 15, 2007 6:37 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: jkachmar | August 15, 2007 6:08 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: fnlorrain | August 15, 2007 5:27 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: crews2me | August 15, 2007 5:26 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: neilhewitfrancis | August 15, 2007 4:44 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: eSPO1 | August 15, 2007 4:31 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: rdklingus | August 15, 2007 4:18 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: eSPO1 | August 15, 2007 4:18 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: bsimon | August 15, 2007 3:50 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: wgill | August 15, 2007 2:56 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: yiannis | August 15, 2007 2:47 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: mcintire78 | August 15, 2007 2:30 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.