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Obama's Higher Standard?

The kerfuffle last week over two opposition research documents sent out by Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) campaign provides a fascinating window into the challenges before the Illinois senator as he seeks his party's presidential nod.

On their surface, the documents, which highlight Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (D-N.Y.) ties to the Indian American community and former President Bill Clinton's connections with a company owned by longtime financial backer Ron Burkle, are the sort of information-trafficking that each and every campaign engages in on a daily basis as they seek to highlight their opponents' flip-flops, misstatements, broken promises etc. (The Obama documents were posted online by the New York Times.)

So what's so newsy about these particular Obama campaign memos? That depends on how you look at it.

Obama promised from the start to run a different sort of campaign, one based more on his telling voters about his own positive vision for the country rather than peddling negative details about his opponents.

In a video captured by the Politico's Ben Smith, Obama said the following about his philosophy when it comes to attacking his opponents: "What I think you will be able to measure though during the course of the campaign is how well I stick to my guns in not making ad hominem attacks toward other candidates, acknowledging where they've done good work, if I disagree with them, disagree with them on the basis of issues, and not suggesting they've got untoward motives."

That, according to Obama's advisers, is exactly what these documents attempt to do. They make the argument that Clinton has financial ties to Indian-American groups that support the outsourcing of American jobs -- a legitimate issue in the campaign.

But when the documents were "released" late last week, outsourcing was not being discussed by the Democratic candidates. In fact, the major news story was the release of Clinton's personal financial disclosure forms. The Obama camp, seeing the large number of "personal and political financial ties" between Clinton and Indian Americans, labeled her "(D-Punjab)."

That's a tough shot, one the Clinton team argued was a violation of Obama's pledge not to make any ad hominem attacks against his rivals.

Our take? At the start of Obama's campaign we wondered whether he hadn't put himself in a rather tight box by pronouncing his plans to run a different sort of campaign. Obviously, there is some wiggle room in his above statement -- he can always resort to the defense that his campaign was simply drawing contrasts on issues. But the perception is that these sort of tactics are beneath a candidate promising to change the dialogue in Washington and nationwide.

Obama's strongest attribute in this race is that he is widely perceived as a change agent -- a fresh face who can finally break down the partisan barriers that have turned Washington into a city widely despised by the rest of the country. Anything that tarnishes that reputation endangers Obama's unique appeal to a wide cross-section of voters, both in the Democratic primary and in the general election (if he gets there). The more he looks like every other politician, the more damage he does to his reputation as a positive force for change.

The fact is that the "every campaign does it" argument probably isn't good enough for Obama. Whether it is perception or reality, Obama is regarded as having set a higher standard for himself.

Do you agree? Are the Obama memos a violation of his stated policy on opposition research and negative attacks? Or do the documents amount to nothing more than "politics as usual"? Sound off in the comments section below.

UPDATE, 3:45 p.m. ET: Obama addressed the controversy directly today at an editorial board meeting with the Des Moines Register, describing the two documents circulated by his campaign as a "screw up on the part of our research team." He added that neither he nor his "senior staff" had seen the documents before they were sent out. He went on to describe the memos as "stupid" and "caustic."

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 18, 2007; 12:38 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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