Barack to the Mountaintop

The unfulfilled promise of Obama’s response to the Clintons.

Barack Obama with Hillary and Bill Clinton. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama and Hillary and Bill Clinton

Gen. Obama is stuck in his tent. His spats with the Clintons are happening too fast to score, but it feels like the Dynastic Duo is getting the better of the combat. Obama is fighting back, but even when he’s winning, he’s fighting back on Clinton turf—squabbling about who hit whom first and whether quotes are being taken out of context. Obama is also letting the Clintons pick the turf—the sound bite and the debate stage. Somehow, he’s keeping his best weapon sheathed. Obama’s strength, and the entire message and promise of his campaign, has been his ability to shift the paradigm when confronted with the old style of politics to get voters to see things in a new way and rally them behind that. So, why has he been unwilling or unable to do this in his own defense?

The battle between the Clintons and He Who Dares Challenge Them is about more than who will get the power that comes with the presidency. The battle is about how you shape ideas in the public square. Whether Obama can fight back matters to Obama fans, but it also should matter to any Democrat who wants his nominee to win in what will be a tough fight with whoever is the Republican pick. (If Obama can’t win a fight among friends, how’s he going to win a fight with the enemy?) It should also matter to anyone at all, really, because candidates who campaign on vaguely magical new ways of practicing politics should have to actually show that magic in action.

The current fight among the Democrats is aggressive and frantic. (The two campaigns have held so many conference calls with reporters attacking each other that they should just start holding joint calls to give us time to sleep.) But the conflict is not that bad by historical standards. Nor has either side reached for the sharpest knives. The Obama camp has not mentioned Monica Lewinsky, and Chelsea Clinton hasn’t joined the family feud (though her mute, smiling presence certainly leavens her father’s outbursts, which makes her part of the team).

In this battle so far, the Clintons are fulfilling their promise to voters—we’ll fight hard, long, and sometimes throw an elbow or two to get what we want. We’ll do that against Republicans in the fall, and we’ll do that when trying to pass universal health care once we’re (she’s) in office. This may turn off some people, but there’s no denying that their behavior matches their message.

Obama’s response to the Clintons has been to punch and counterpunch. He’s not superb at it. He seems to struggle with his irritation at having to engage in this at all and then sometimes seems afflicted with a wicked case of staircase wit, issuing comebacks a little late—after he’s thought of a good one—even as the Clintons have moved on to calling for an elevated debate. There is still every possibility that the Clintons may fall of their own overreaching, but that’s a risky strategy for Obama.

Obama could change the tone by talking about policy ideas, but his biggest, boldest idea is that he’s going to change the tone of the debate. So, whatever alchemy he was going to employ when he became president to solve Washington’s most intractable problems, he should probably employ now to help himself. I’m not setting the bar too high for him. This is the bar he has set for himself.

So, how does Obama do this? As the paradigm-shifter, only he knows. But the answer doesn’t lie in a sharp comment to a reporter or some perfect rejoinder at the next debate, on Jan. 31. He needs a media moment to wrap his response to all of the Clinton claims about him (particularly the fair and reasonable ones) into his bigger campaign themes.

Some of the counter-Clinton language is already in his stump speech, in which he casts the couple and their political talents as models of the past. But part of Obama’s talent is that he knows he has to give the media a moment to crystallize this. A narrative-bending moment, an on-every-commentator’s-lips moment. This will become even more important after South Carolina, when national coverage will shape the message for the 22 states that will vote on Super Tuesday.

Obama has found his moments before—at the 2004 Democratic convention, at the Jefferson Jackson dinner in November, after his Iowa caucus win, and last Sunday when he spoke at the church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached. He was winning over audiences in Iowa weeks before the Jefferson Jackson dinner, but it wasn’t until that night, when he showed his stuff in front of a room full of journalists, that he won big recognition. He broke through when the media proclaimed that he’d broken through. Perhaps this will be the role of his South Carolina victory speech if he wins in that state on Saturday, as the polls suggest he will. But that’s not likely to be enough for him, because that night will be cluttered by obsessive chatter about the role race played in the outcome.

Pulling out the big moment won’t solve Obama’s main electoral challenge—making his message work for regular working folks who wonder how he’s going to improve their daily lives. But busting out of the Clinton boxing ring would show that when it counts, he can harness the new talents for which he is always being praised. And for which he praises himself.