Is Obama Too Soft?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 2008; 9:20 AM

Last fall, with Barack Obama badly trailing Hillary Clinton in the polls, the pundits came up with a solution: He needed to start smacking her upside the head.

Some commentators practically begged their man to start attacking, saying he had no chance of competing with the Clinton machine unless he got his mouth in gear.

So what happened? Obama did step up his criticism a bit but largely stuck to a positive campaign. He won Iowa, held his own on Super Tuesday, reeled off 10 straight victories and virtually captured the nomination.

Now a similar debate is under way. It's not that Obama is trailing, it's that his lead is deemed too slight. Journalists everywhere are asking: In a perfect environment for Democrats, why isn't he running away with this thing?

And the answer, according to the usual strategists and pontificators, named and unnamed, is that Barack has to start punching harder. He needs to pummel John McCain with the same fervor that the Arizonan's team is trashing him. He needs to show that he's not afraid of a brawl.

It seems not to have occurred to these folks that Obama has done pretty well by preaching a different kind of politics. There could be a significant downside to the Illinois senator getting down in the trenches and engaging in the kind of tit-for-tat charges that he has criticized.

That doesn't mean Obama can wimp out in the face of sustained political attacks. But he has a certain style of counterpunching--gently mocking his opponents, often with a smile--that, so far at least, has worked for him. Whether that approach can carry him through September and October is another question. But a high-minded candidate has to be careful about the low road. McCain is drawing criticism for his negative ads and 'rather lose a war' line of assault, but that's a risk the Republican's team has decided it's willing to take.

The issue came up in a WP piece citing Democratic strategists as saying that Obama's negative ads were "nothing like the character attacks by McCain, and that the response could be far nastier, perhaps raising McCain's ethical scrape in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal, mocking his family wealth and designer shoes, or highlighting his age. After McCain economic adviser Phil Gramm suggested that the United States has become 'a nation of whiners,' Democratic strategists said Obama should have immediately started an ad blitz."

Obama spokesman Bill Burton's response: "We are not going to base our campaign on the concerns of so-called campaign strategists on cable TV . . . This is a classic Washington story, anonymous quotes from armchair quarterbacks with no sense of our strategy, data or plan."

Take that!

But Americablog's John Aravosis is among those who think Obama's been too soft:

"I think John Kerry and Al Gore paid a high price for being intellectual pretty-boys who didn't show enough of a tough-guy side (interestingly, I think Wesley Clark has the same PR problem - way too nice of a guy on TV, and never shows his inner general). The public knows Obama is smart and good looking, now they need to know that he can be an [orifice I can't name] too."

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