Obama's Achilles' Heel
What's he ever done?
On the campaign trail, Obama can shrink his crowds and move from the delicate soufflé speeches to ones that talk in a concrete way about how he is going to change people's lives. He did this in a recent urban poverty speech and has taken to reading to audiences what specific government services they're being denied by the billions being spent each month on the Iraq war. John Edwards, among others, had criticized Obama for offering voters only hope, but at the last debate, Edwards praised Obama for the seriousness of his health-care plan. It's not a bold and transformative plan, but that may not matter so much. Obama merely needs to make the case that he's serious enough, so that when his ideas are matched with his charisma, he can build a national consensus for policies better than any other candidate. "We all bought Bill Clinton's blue sky," says Iowa Woodbury * County Democratic Chairwoman Teresa Wolf, who is not backing a candidate. "Why not Obama's as long as it's a blue sky."
What Obama can't grow on the campaign trail is a different life experience. And Hillary Clinton and her campaign are going to be relentless in raising the experience issue. To fix this problem the Obama team is insisting that Obama has a different kind of what they call "real" experience. They're running television commercials highlighting his years as a community organizer and state senator. "A lot of people think that Barack Obama was born at the DNC convention in 2004," says his communications director Robert Gibbs. (That's probably because the campaign uses the clip so often to promote him.) The ads start with chapter headings for each of the stages of his career and plenty of black-and-white photos to suggest he has had an epic life. On the stump and in debates, Obama is also stressing his past. When he spoke about his urban agenda, he pointed out that poverty was "the cause that led me to a life of public service almost 25 years ago.''
The campaign is also redefining what experience means for Clinton, using her years in the Senate and White House to brand her as a creature of Washington and the past. Beyond his prescience on the Iraq war, Obama is making a larger claim: that he has better judgment than any other candidate on foreign-policy issues because he is not a captive of the Beltway. He supports this by pointing to his early years growing up overseas, which he stretches into "a life of living overseas." His reception in Africa last fall certainly suggests he has a world appeal like no other candidate. In an attempt to add a little military shine, he has enlisted a retired Air Force major general to his campaign who has been crisscrossing Iowa on something called the Obama for Commander in Chief Tour.
Plenty of candidates have won the presidency without foreign-policy experience. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush lacked foreign-policy experience. Even during the Cold War, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were elected. But unlike Obama, these presidents at least had executive experience as governors.
By claiming a special judgment in foreign policy, Obama exposes himself to uncomfortable follow-ups. He made dramatic claims that Clinton's conditional views on negotiating with rogue nations meant her approach was merely "Bush-Cheney light," but Obama had expressed a nearly identical view just before the big spat. He says he wouldn't be afraid to tell leaders like Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hard truths face to face. On what past experience will he draw for these high-wire negotiations? What high pressures has he endured to prepare him for the appealing, but risky, diplomacy he promises? Obama supporters are fond of comparing him to John F. Kennedy, but they have forgotten that Kennedy's first meeting with Khruschev didn't go so well and his first foreign-policy adventure, the Bay of Pigs, was a disaster because of the new president's inexperience and naiveté.
Obama also exposes himself politically by focusing too keenly on Clinton's Iraq record in the Senate. His argument is that she was insufficiently questioning of the administration, but despite his prescience as a candidate in 2002, he was hardly an anti-war leader when he got to Washington. His record in the Senate is not consistent with his self-styled campaign image as a bold, transformational leadership voice on Iraq.
The best thing going for Obama in the fight with Clinton over his leadership credentials may be the fight itself. He gets to show that he's combative, self-assured, and not afraid of a confrontation. In fact, he seems to delight in it. Since Clinton is considered a formidable opponent, he's getting the chance to demonstrate toughness to voters that isn't readily apparent from looking at his actual career.
Correction, July 30, 2007: This article originally claimed that Teresa Wolf is Democratic chairwoman of Waterloo County, Iowa. She is Democratic chairwoman of Woodbury County. (Return to the corrected sentence.)