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Clinton vs. Obama, A Difference With a Distinction?

Clinton and Obama at a candidate forum last month. (Reuters).

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama spent Labor Day addressing their weaknesses. In a reversal of roles, Clinton argued that she is the real candidate of change, while Obama said he has the right experience to be a better president.

A close reading of their new stump speeches, unveiled at the opening of the fall rush to the primaries, shows a remarkable amount of convergence between Clinton and Obama. Whole paragraphs from Obama's could be inserted into Clinton's -- and vice versa -- without jarring interruption.

The two agree with each other and with the rest of the Democratic field on their critique of the Bush administration and on many of the policy changes they would pursue if elected president.

Sometimes even their language is identical. Clinton on Sunday accused the administration of putting "cronyism above competence," while Obama on Monday called the administration's record "triumph of...cronyism over competence."

Clinton charged the administration with "shredding the Constitution" and "smearing dissenters." Obama said Bush has treated the Constitution "as a nuisance instead of the founding document of our democracy."

Each evoked the same images of New Orleans residents stranded on rooftops after Hurricane Katrina and both decried economic policies under Bush that they said have favored the rich over the middle class.

The Clinton and Obama agendas include universal health care and a new energy policy aimed at boosting alternative fuels and reducing dependence on oil imports. Both favor a foreign policy designed to end the war in Iraq and restore American prestige through vigorous diplomacy.

But it is on the framing issue of change versus experience where Clinton and Obama broke new ground over the weekend and set up a debate -- and a choice -- that will rapidly intensify.

Start with Obama. There is no way for Obama to wish away the problem or pretend it doesn't exist, and on Monday he sought to address that potential deficiency by redefining the meaning of experience.

"Because he comes from what might be considered an unconventional background, we have a little steeper hill to climb to convince people that he has the right experience," campaign manager David Plouffe said.

In the speech, Obama sought to turn Washington experience into a negative attribute, reminding his audience of the record of President Bush's widely experienced foreign policy team.

"There were a couple of guys named Cheney and Rumsfeld who had two of the longest resumes in Washington and they led us into the worst foreign policy fiasco in our history. Time served doesn't guarantee judgment. A resume does nothing about character."

Obama also used public frustration with Washington to bolster his case "I might not have the experience Washington likes, but I believe I have the experience America needs right now," he said. "Hope and change are not just the rhetoric of a campaign for me. Hope and change have been the causes of my life."

Clinton's argument was a variation of Bill Clinton's "buy one, get one free" message in 1992, except she argued that change and experience are not mutually exclusive. "I know some people think you have to choose between change and experience," she said. "Well with me, you don't have to choose."

But in making that claim, Clinton also made herself the candidate of Washington who has embraced the system while pledging to fix what many Americans see as broken. "From my time in the White House and in the Senate, I have learned that you bring change by working in the system established in our Constitution," she said. "You cannot pretend that the system doesn't exist."

Clinton argued that the system could be fixed by a president willing to do the hard work of developing consensus, building coalitions and passing legislation. That, she said, is what Lyndon B. Johnson did to pass Medicare and the Voting Rights Act; what Franklin D. Roosevelt did to create the Social Security system; and what Teddy Roosevelt did in taking on the trusts.

Then, in an apparent reference to Obama, she said, "We need to dream big, but then we have to figure out how to make those dreams a reality in the lives of Americans."

Obama's hopes for the nomination may hinge on his success in turning tables on the experience issue. His fundraising, his crowds and the enthusiasm of his supporters shows the potential for a candidate preaching change and reconciliation .If he can neutralize the issue of experience, then he will be the kind of threat that his campaign has long suggested.

If not, then he may find John Edwards, who picked up two key union endorsements on Monday, crowding him to become the alternative to the front-running Clinton.

From the perspective of some Clinton advisers, Obama is making the only argument he can, given his resume. The question is whether he can persuade Democratic voters that his work as a community organizer, state senator, constitutional law professor and a boyhood spent in part overseas add up to a life experience that could bind a divided nation, force changes in policy and keep the country safe.

Clinton's path may seem easier if for no other reason that it is the more traditional: persuading Democratic voters that she is the most qualified person to be president. That has often worked in past nomination battles and might well again this time. Certainly the polls suggest Democratic voters find her the most experienced and also credible in arguing that she can change the country.

From the perspective of Obama's campaign, however, her embrace of the system leaves her vulnerable if the Democratic electorate turns decisively against Washington, and not just against Bush. Obama will continue to argue that the country needs someone who doesn't come from inside that system, particularly a candidate who threatens to perpetuate the partisan polarization of the past decade.

The Labor Day weekend sharpened the choice ahead. Will Democrats opt for someone who would run the current system more efficiently or someone who will argue he has the potential to make it run differently?

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  September 4, 2007; 12:56 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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