Obama Steps It Up

His challenge to Clinton’s candor.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Sen. Barack Obama

Three weeks ago, Ted Sorenson, the distinguished John F. Kennedy speechwriter, was introducing Barack Obama in Iowa. This weekend, it was Tod Bowman, a government teacher from Maquoketa, Iowa, with a story about Hillary Clinton’s lack of candor. *

At a town hall not long ago, Bowman, then an uncommitted voter, asked Hillary Clinton if she would support collecting Social Security taxes on earnings above the current cap of $97,500 in order to bring in more money to shore up the retirement system. Clinton refused to answer him or get specific. “I don’t think I should be negotiating about what I would do as president,” she said. Later, while posing for pictures, Clinton told Bowman she might consider lifting the cap for those earning more than $200,000, an idea John Edwards first advocated.

After the session, Bowman was quoted telling AP reporter Nedra Pickler he was disappointed that Clinton didn’t say in public what she felt in private. Last Friday, the Obama campaign called Bowman and asked if he’d repeat his story. “They asked me if I would introduce the Senator and if I was on board,” says Bowman. “I said no, and they said: ‘We still want you to come out.’ ”

Bowman agreed, and with a little help from the Obama campaign, which “classed up” his language, he told the story about Hillary’s slipperiness to introduce Obama’s speech on Social Security Oct. 27. This was the kickoff of his announced effort to step up his confrontations with Hillary Clinton. The campaign is also peddling Bowman’s story about Clinton’s refusal to share her views publicly, and launched a new ad on Social Security. In his own remarks, Obama described Clinton’s Social Security position as, “You should hedge, dodge, and spin, but at all costs, don’t answer.”

This is not the first time Obama has promised to take on the front-runner in earnest. Until now, it’s been mostly talk. My suspicion has been that Obama was trying to get the press to do some of his work for him. Political reporters love process stories, and if they write enough about Obama’s coming challenge to Clinton’s truthfulness, Obama may be able to avoid the heavy lifting himself. In the Oct. 30 debate, Obama will show us if he’s willing to do it himself.

By challenging Clinton’s honesty, Obama is not only going after one of her relative weaknesses, according to polls  (PDF). He is trying to turn one of the front-runner’s strengths into a liability. Clinton is an extremely careful campaigner. She has done so well so far because she has made very few mistakes. Obama wants voters to read her caution as a sign of duplicity instead of thoughtful maturity.

But in calling Hillary untrustworthy, Obama  risks damaging his brand as the high-minded candidate. There is also the possibility that it just won’t work. Clinton has not gone unattacked over the past several months, yet her poll numbers have steadily climbed. Obama supporters want him to do something aggressive to stop Clinton’s rise. But they’re already for him—do undecided voters really want to hear more attacks?

Voters might prefer hearing Obama articulate where he would take the country. Combat with Clinton could obscure that larger message. And Obama’s new strategy does little to answer the problem Democratic analysts have pointed to for months: Obama has not offered a policy agenda as compelling as he is. His Social Security proposal addresses a problem some voters aren’t that worried  about. His plan is better than Clinton’s nonexistent one and refusal to give a hint of her thinking, but it’s not that bold or courageous. Obama would tax the wealthy (he doesn’t say how wealthy) to bring in more money, an idea that has been around for years. Obama also loses boldness points by refusing to consider other ideas. In a May debate, he said all options but privatization should be on the table for fixing Social Security. Now he says the retirement age should not be raised, and benefits should not be touched. (He also said in that debate it was a mistake to get specific on details, a position he now criticizes Clinton for holding.)

Obama’s plan would bring in lots of money to fill the trust fund. But it does nothing to fix the systemic budget problem that Social Security is a part of. All that new money would go into the unified budget and become available for all kinds of other programs. Obama has offered no suggestion for protecting this new money in a lockbox, or otherwise protecting it from being spent on general operations—something any serious plan would address.  

On a scale of boldness and specificity, Obama gets only a C+; but on that same scale, Hillary Clinton gets an F. Will emphasizing that disparity get Obama’s campaign going at last? It was good enough for Bowman—Obama won him over. The election may now be determined by whether he can clone him.

Correction, March 3, 2009: The article originally gave the name of the government teacher as Ted. (Return to the corrected sentence.)