By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
MANCHESTER, N.H., Aug. 14 -- Drawing a sharp contrast with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, his main rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama said in an interview that he has the capacity she may lack to unify the country and move it out of what he called "ideological gridlock."
"I think it is fair to say that I believe I can bring the country together more effectively than she can," Obama said. "I will add, by the way, that is not entirely a problem of her making. Some of those battles in the '90s that she went through were the result of some pretty unfair attacks on the Clintons. But that history exists, and so, yes, I believe I can bring the country together in a way she cannot do. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be running."
Consistently trailing Clinton (N.Y.) in national polls, Obama (Ill.) has sought recently to draw more explicit contrasts between his views and what he has portrayed as the conventional thinking and behavior that have caused problems for the country, especially in the rest of the world. He did that again in the interview Monday afternoon, defending himself against criticism from Clinton and other Democratic rivals for a series of statements on foreign policy and arguing that Clinton's foreign policy views risk continued international perceptions of U.S. arrogance.
But he also made a broader argument that more than a change in parties is needed to fix the country's problems. At one point, Obama said he was not singling out Clinton in saying that he is better able to pull the nation together than any of his challengers, but over the course of the 40-minute interview he volunteered a number of contrasts between his views and Clinton's.
"Her argument is going to be that 'I'm the experienced Washington hand,' and my argument is going to be that we need to change the ways of Washington," he said. "That's going to be a good choice for the American people."
Saying that Bill Clinton's presidency was good for America, he added: "The question is, moving forward, looking towards the future, is it sufficient just to change political parties, or do we need a more fundamental change in how business is done in Washington . . .? Do we need to break out of some of the ideological battles that we fought during the '90s that were really extensions of battles we fought since the '60s?"
Obama never used the term "polarizing" to describe Clinton but made it clear he has studied polls that show that many people have an unfavorable opinion of her. "I don't think there is anybody in this race who's able to bring new people into the process and break out of some of the ideological gridlock that we have as effectively as I can," he said.
Asked for a reaction to Obama's comments, Clinton campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson said by e-mail: "It's unfortunate that Senator Obama is turning away from the politics of hope and employing attack politics instead. That's certainly not going to bring our party -- or our country -- together. It's Senator Clinton who has the strength and the experience to make the change this nation needs."
Obama said he is not concerned about Clinton's lead in national polls. He pointed to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, where he said local opinion surveys show a far more competitive contest.
Still, he conceded that because many Democrats do not know him as well as they do Clinton, she is drawing more support nationally. "We've got to really fill in the blanks with folks, and that's going to be the challenge," he said. "We're getting to the point now where it's a sprint. With all the calendars moved up, this is going to be a four-month race."
Clinton's rise in national polls has come after she delivered solid performances in candidate debates. Reviews for Obama have been far more mixed, and the senator from Illinois acknowledged that he has yet to master the requirements of multi-candidate forums with strict time limits for answers.
"There's no doubt that the 60-second-format debates, or even 90-second, are tough for me," he said, adding: "Some candidates have mastered that art more than I have."
Obama said he has become a target because Democratic rivals are determined to paint him as too inexperienced to serve as president and commander in chief. Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) have joined Clinton in questioning Obama's experience, but he focused on Clinton's criticism to explain why he is under attack.
"I think it's very clear what their political strategy is," he said of the Clinton campaign. "They want to project Senator Clinton as the seasoned, experienced hand. I don't fault them for that. That's the strategy they're pursuing, and my response is that what the American people need and what the Oval Office needs right now is good judgment. Experience can be a proxy for good judgment, but it isn't always."
He then repeated what he said during a debate in Chicago last week: "All the people who were on that stage in Chicago talking about their experience and criticizing me for the lack of it were the same people who went along and displayed incredibly poor judgment in going along with a war that I think has been a disaster."
Obama said he welcomed the debate that was touched off by comments he made about his willingness to meet with leaders of hostile nations without preconditions, pursuing al-Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan if there were actionable intelligence, and ruling out the use of nuclear weapons in such attacks.
"I'm happy to have that debate about what is the relevant experience you need to lead this country moving forward," he said. "It's not going to be a matter of mouthing the conventional wisdom for points on a résumé. It's really going to have to do with the capacity to inspire confidence in the American people to restore a sense of our values and our ideals."
Obama said he believes that he is on the more solid ground in the foreign policy debate underway and that the back-and-forth has helped make clear the distinctions between him and other candidates, particularly Clinton.
"My sense is, either people aren't paying careful enough attention to what I'm saying or they're simply trying to score political points," he said. "Or there is a substantive argument in which I'm very confident in my position and I think the American people share my position."
He then challenged Clinton for accusing him of being "irresponsible and frankly naive" after he said he was willing to meet with leaders of nations such as Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela without preconditions.
"Senator Clinton apparently disagrees with me on this issue of preconditions," he said. "I think she's wrong on that because if we continue to set preconditions for discussions that are hostile to us, I think that's what loses the PR battle worldwide because it implies the United States is the superior power and other states have to give in to our demands before we even deign to meet with them. And that reinforces the sense of the arrogance of U.S. power around the world, which is a source of great damage -- and makes us less safe."
Obama set forth two goals for the coming months. The first is to outline in greater detail the changes he would make in health care, education, energy policy and national security policy. The second, he said, is to show that his career proves he has the judgment and experience to be president. "If we do those two things, I think that this will be a very competitive election, and already in the early states it is," he said.
During the interview, Obama softened his attacks on Washington lobbyists. He and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) take no money from Washington lobbyists, while Clinton does, and both have sharply criticized the power of lobbyists in shaping policies harmful to average Americans.
"The insurance and drug companies can have a seat at the table in our health-care debate; they just can't buy all the chairs," he said. "My argument is not that they are the source of all evil. My argument is that things are out of balance in Washington and that their influence is disproportionate."