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Sen. Obama and Iraq

When Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) entered the race for president earlier this year two competing notions were immediately obvious: he was both the least (politically) experienced candidate among the frontrunners and the only one of the top-tier candidates who opposed the Iraq war from the beginning.

Those two facts are at the heart of understanding Obama through the lens of the war in Iraq. It's a contrast between experience and judgement, which Obama believes works in his favor.

Here's an excerpt from Obama's speech yesterday in Iowa on the war:

"Conventional thinking in Washington lined up for war. The pundits judged the political winds to be blowing in the direction of the president. Despite -- or perhaps because of how much experience they had in Washington, too many politicians feared looking weak and failed to ask hard questions. Too many took the president at his word instead of reading the intelligence for themselves. Congress gave the president the authority to go to war. Our only opportunity to stop the war was lost."

The most important line? "Despite -- or perhaps because of how much experience they had in Washington, too many politicians feared looking weak and failed to ask hard questions." Make no mistake -- that line was a direct shot at Clinton and her argument (as laid out yesterday on The Fix) that she alone in the field has the experience to change the course of Iraq policy.

What Obama is hoping to do is take Clinton's greatest strength -- the image among voters that she has the experience to be president -- and use it against her. For all of her experience, Obama and his supporters argue, Clinton got the most important vote in the past five years wrong (as did former Sen. John Edwards). Obama (at the time a state Senator in Illinois) got it right. Judgment trumps experience, argues the Obama team.

But, it's become apparent over the last nine months that a focusing on the past isn't enough to topple Clinton.

That explains Obama's unveiling of a comprehensive way forward in Iraq during a speech in CLINTON, Iowa on Wednesday. The key element of Obama's plan is the withdrawal of all American combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2008, through a steady drawdown of one or two combat brigades a month. Obama also proposed a United Nations-led constitutional convention designed to bring warring factions to the table and a crackdown on the perpetrators of war crimes within Iraq.

The details of the speech, frankly, were less important than the symbolic thrust of it. Delivering such a "major" speech in the midst of Congressional hearings on Iraq and ahead of a planned presidential address Thursday night allowed Obama to loudly broadcast that his positioning on Iraq isn't just about the past, it's also forward-looking.

Obama is attempting to counter and neutralize the rhetoric employed by Clinton that essentially says: what's past is past; now we need to figure out the best way to move forward. By giving this speech, Obama can now say that not only was he the only candidate who was opposed the war from the start but he is also the candidate with a comprehensive plan to end the conflict.

The problem with that strategy is that Clinton and her team have been committed for months now not to allow any rhetorical or space between she and Obama on Iraq. Both voted in late May against a bill to fund the troops because it did not include a timeline for withdrawal and both will almost certainly vote against any future funding bill that lacks withdrawal dates.

Obama's opponents also note that he was a less-than-vocal presence on the war in the Senate and had opposed timelines for withdrawal before announcing for president. To be frank, that strikes us as somewhat thin gruel. While Obama may not have been an active anti-war presence during his first two years in the Senate, he was on record as being opposed to the war from its inception. For activists, that is all that matters. And each of the top three candidates have moved further to the ideological left on the war as it has played out over the past five years.

The challenge for Obama as it relates to Iraq is twofold. First, he must show voters that real differences exist between himself and Clinton on the war -- most notably that he opposed it from the start while she did not. (Expect to hear a lot more rhetoric like this in Obama's future speeches: "I opposed this war from the beginning. I opposed the war in 2002. I opposed it in 2003. I opposed it in 2004. I opposed it in 2005. I opposed it in 2006.") Second, he needs to find a way to convince voters that he is the candidate of the future, the candidate with the vision and judgment (if not the experience) to extricate us from Iraq as well as change the overall nature of partisan politics.

It's a daunting task but one the Obama campaign expresses little concern over. They argue that once the issue is fully debated on the stump and on television, voters will get the differences between their candidate and the other candidates in the field. Perhaps. But, with Clinton's campaign doing everything they can to blur the differences between the two candidates on the issue, it won't be easy.

By Chris Cillizza  |  September 13, 2007; 3:01 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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