Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

"Give 'Em Hell, Barry"

If the campaign was meant to toughen him up, it is both succeeding and failing. After being bushwhacked in the ABC debate, Barack Obama is riding the Pennsylvania rails doing a 1948 Harry Truman impersonation at whistle stops.

Instead of giving hell to a do-nothing Congress, as Truman did, Obama is targeting Hillary Clinton and the media.

"On his train tour Saturday," John Dickerson reports in Slate, "Senator Obama continued to condemn the petty distractions that keep Americans from focusing on real issues. He decried Clinton's 'tactics of Washington,' in which she attacks him with every possible weapon. 'She's got the kitchen sink flying, the china flying. The buffet is coming at me…when we get involved in the constant distractions, the petty tit-for-tat politics…that may be good for the television ratings, but that's not good for you.'"

At the same time, Obama is paying a price for such outraged high-mindedness as his campaign, in Dickerson's words, "hosted a conference call to engage in the practice the candidate was busy denouncing." Hypocrisy, as necessary as it may appear to be, is sapping the strength of a candidacy that has come this far by attacking it.

All along, the central question in voters' minds has been, not about Obama's inexperience, but his core toughness to be president in a time that calls for it as well as for idealism, intelligence and good judgement.

Maureen Dowd, who has been coaching him not to be bullied, says today, "Obama is cool in a good way. He continues to look to the stars as the Clintons drag him down to the gutter, even when Hillary suggests he should scamper out of the kitchen since he’s so obviously sensitive to heat" but also warns:

"He can create an uplifting new kind of politics if he becomes president, but first he’s going to have to get past the shallow and vicious old politics he says he disdains (even if his campaign knows how to dip into the Clinton toolbox)."

True enough, up to a point, but in doing his Harry Truman impression, he should keep in mind what another Democratic predecessor, Adlai Stevenson, said: “The hardest thing about any campaign is how to win without proving you’re unworthy of winning.”

The looming irony about the toughness issue is that, after winning the nomination, Obama will have to confront John McCain in what will be a two-front war. McCain, not needing to show cojones as Clinton has been doing, will take the high road on personal issues, even as 527 ads swiftboat Obama's past associations. Obama will have to stand up to McCain, while continuing to express personal admiration, but make the case that a new kind of leadership is required in a world that has made McCain's stubborn strength obsolete.

It won't be a dull campaign.

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