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."

Politico finds someone who wants a tougher Obama:

"One of the Democratic Party's leading electoral street fighters, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, said that Barack Obama should respond to John McCain's personal attacks with an equally personal slap . . .

"He argued for a higher-velocity response. 'I would answer back hard. What do you mean he's not one of us? It's John McCain who wears $500 shoes, has six houses, and comes from one of the richest families in his state,' Schumer said. 'It's Barack Obama who climbed up the hard way, and that's why he wants middle-class tax cuts and better schools for our kids.' "

After a day of media reports on friction with the Hillary camp, the Obama team leaked this news last night:

"Former President Clinton will speak at the Democratic National Convention this month, settling a lingering question about the role he will play in Barack Obama's nomination," the L.A. Times reports. "A senior Democrat familiar with convention plans said Thursday that Clinton would address delegates on Wednesday, Aug. 27, the day before the Illinois senator is to formally accept the nomination."

"So with Mrs. Clinton speaking on Aug. 26, followed by her husband, the Obama campaign is giving two nights of prime time coverage to the Clinton family," says the New York Times, adding: "The matter was so sensitive that no one was willing to speak about it on the record. Democrats on all sides, though, said it's a done deal."

All this back and forth has me wondering: Would Hillary have been in a stronger position at this point? She was stronger among working-class voters--the traditional Democratic base--and few seriously questioned her readiness to be president.

On the other hand, her weaknesses were apparent throughout the primaries: lackluster speaker. Divisive figure. And seen as running in a change election to restore the 1990s. I doubt she'd be much higher in the polls than Obama.

Conservatives have also been thinking about their least favorite former first lady, who Victor Davis Hanson says could have taken McCain:

"Many are beginning to notice how a Saint Obama talks down to them. We American yokels can't speak French or Spanish. We eat too much. Our cars are too big, our houses either overheated or overcooled. And we don't even put enough air in our car tires. In contrast, a lean, hip Obama promises to still the rising seas and cool down the planet, assuring adoring Germans that he is a citizen of the world . . .

"In a tough year like this, Democrats could probably have defeated Republican John McCain with a flawed, but seasoned candidate like Hillary Clinton. But long-suffering liberals convinced their party to go with a messiah rather than a dependable nominee -- and thereby they probably will get neither."

At Hot Air, much more skepticism from Ed Morrissey:

"After a season of Barack Obama as the nominee and his serial gaffes and contortionist flip-flops, it's easy to forget that Hillary could have been even worse for the Democrats. Early on, Republicans salivated at the thought of having Hillary as a fundraiser, tapping into the palpable hatred of the Clintons to fire up the base regardless of who the GOP nominated to run against her. Thanks to the long track record of the Clintons, they had plenty of ammunition to remind people just how tawdry their first occupancy of the White House turned out to be."

Could Hillary spell trouble in Denver? Right Wing Nuthouse resident Rick Moran thinks so, but not necessarily on the floor:

"Even though these Hillaryites don't have a ghost of a chance in overturning the nomination of Obama, that doesn't mean they can't cause loads of trouble for the nominee in Denver -- especially if they get anywhere near a microphone. And I will guarantee you that every network and reporter covering the Democratic convention in Denver will actively seek out the grumblers, the apostates, the bitter enders for Hillary, and any other delegates who will offer a dramatic counterpoint to the lovefest offered up by the Obama campaign.

"The nominee may control the floor. But he and his people have absolutely no say in what goes out over the airwaves. And since conventions aren't 'news' in the true sense of the word but rather 'entertainment,' networks will seek out controversy in order to offer 'drama' to the viewer."

The latest evidence that You Are What You Watch comes from this Rasmussen survey:

"Eighty-seven percent of Fox News viewers say they are likely to vote for John McCain, while those who watch CNN and MSNBC plan to support Barack Obama in November by more than two to one.

"A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 65% of CNN voters plan to vote for the Democratic candidate versus 26% who intend to go for the Republican. Similarly, MSNBC watchers plan to vote for Obama over McCain 63% to 30% . . .

"Seventy percent of those who watch CBS' Katie Couric every day plan to vote for Obama, as do 71% of the daily viewers of ABC's Charles Gibson and 67% of those watching NBC's Brian Williams."

It's a fragmented universe out there. No wonder Obama won't go on the "Factor."

You may have noticed that much of the campaign coverage lately involves . . . Paris Hilton. At times it seems to be more Paris than politics. Who's to blame for this? Arianna Huffington has two targets:

"Our energy policy and a good deal of this presidential campaign are being discussed through the lens of Paris Hilton. What a big goof it all is! If you just ignore all the soldiers and civilians dying in the Mideast, and all the millions losing their homes and their jobs at home, you could really see the lighter side of it all . . .

"It is still a sad spectacle to see John McCain going along with it with such glib eagerness. The man who once pledged to run a 'respectful campaign' and who said that Obama 'would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign' has made it clear that he'd rather lose everything he has stood for than lose the White House.

"As New York Magazine's John Heilemann noted, 'we now have an inkling of just how deep in the mud McCain and his people are willing to wallow in order to win in November: right up to their Republican eyeballs.'

"The problem is, we're right down there with him. That's because all it takes is one of the two candidates to decide to yank the discourse into the ditch and the media -- and as a result, the public -- follow.

"Instead of the media calling the McCain campaign on its pathetic trivialization of the presidential race, they have been engaging in meaningless horse-race analysis of 'did the ad work?' The conventional wisdom appears to be that it did."

It's our job to report on each campaign's tactics and not to denounce them as, say, pathetic. There's certainly been plenty of criticism of the McCain ad--though everyone likes the Paris spoof--and at the same time, it seems to have worked in changing the campaign conversation. Still, you'd have to admit there's been plenty of preening over Paris, especially on the tube.

More theories on why Obama doesn't have a bigger lead from Atlantic blogger Marc Ambinder:

"White, generational racism. Maybe racism accounts for Obama's difficulties with older white voters and white men, in particular. But with one exception -- older white women -- his fall-offs among these demographics roughly track the norm for Democratic presidential candidates.

"Otherness. There is a thin version, as expostulated by David Brooks, is that Obama, a 'sojournor,' and 'voters have trouble placing him in his context, understanding the roots and values in which he is ineluctably embedded.' Basically: the Peter Hart problem. The thinker version: whether it's his name, his binational background, his biracial identity, his urbanity, his inexperience -- people don't really trust him.

"Bambiness. Obama doesn't counterpunch effectively, and to the extent that baseline opinions about character are being formed now, bruises that were just about to fully heal from the primaries are blushing again. Put it another way, just as the McCain campaign is offended by the rank inexperience and presumptuous of the Obama campaign and aren't bottling up their feelings, the Obama campaign is offended by the rank immaturity and stupidity of the McCain campaign and aren't bottling up their feelings."

In the WSJ, Karl Rove offers some advice to the Republican candidate:

"Mr. McCain is the most private person to run for president since Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s. He needs to share (or allow others to share) more about him, especially his faith. The McCain and Obama campaigns are mirror opposites. Mr. McCain offers little biography, while Mr. Obama is nothing but.

"The Republican Party's convention next month is Mr. McCain's biggest chance to improve his posture. The best minds in his campaign should be carefully working on its script."

After my piece this week on McCain keeping national reporters at bay for the first time in two presidential campaigns, NPR also details the lack of access. Key quote from Mark Salter:

"Obviously, every campaign has to get out there, and every day you get up and you've got a certain thing you want to say. And if you spend a lot of time talking about things other than what you want to say, it often gets diluted or you guys don't report it."

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