PORTSMOUTH, N.H.—Barack Obama, of all people, is making experience an issue.
“When you elect our next President, you will choose someone who will make those judgments on Iraq and Iran, and how to restore America’s standing—and you have to be able to trust that he or she has the judgment to lead,” Mr. Obama said Nov. 27 at an “Obama Foreign Policy Forum” in Portsmouth, N.H.
Looking forward to the general election, Mr. Obama said, “My opponent won’t be able to say that I ever supported the war in Iraq, or that I supported using our troops in Iraq to counter Iran, or that I support the Bush-Cheney diplomacy of not talking to leaders that we don’t like. And he will not be able to say that I wavered on something as fundamental as whether or not it is O.K. for America to torture—because it is never O.K.” Hillary Clinton wanted an argument with Mr. Obama about foreign policy experience. Now, she’s undoubtedly got it.
During a three-day sweep across New Hampshire this week, Mr. Obama severely sharpened his own questioning of Mrs. Clinton’s qualifications, essentially mocking her for implicitly equating first-lady duties with, say, service in an actual cabinet position.
With some polls showing him taking a miniscule lead in Iowa and closing the gap in New Hampshire, Mr. Obama returned time and again to the areas where the Clinton campaign considers him vulnerable: that his claim to experience is rooted in his childhood years abroad; that he has declared himself willing to talk personally to the leaders of enemy states; that he is unready to lead.
On the morning of Nov. 27 in Portsmouth, he presided over a panel discussion with his top advisers, which served as a sort of “stump the candidate on international affairs” campaign event. Mr. Obama fielded questions about the world economy (“global interdependence is here to stay,” he said), the United Nations (the Human Rights Commission, he said, is “a “farce”) and energy independence.
In case it wasn’t clear enough what Mr. Obama was trying to prove with his in-depth policy discussions, the campaign made foreign policy surrogates available to state the premise directly.
Speaking shortly before Mr. Obama arrived from a tour of a nearby shipyard, Tony Lake, an Obama adviser and former assistant to President Bill Clinton for national security affairs, said, “I cannot understand why he is attacked for a lack of experience.”
Mr. Lake cited Mr. Obama’s seat on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, his time studying international relations at Columbia University, his age—he’s 46, the same age Bill Clinton was in 1992—and his time living and traveling abroad as evidence of his qualifications. “His experience, it seems to me, is greater—even in a classic type of experience—is greater than Bill Clinton’s when he ran for president,” Mr. Lake said.
The forum, at which guests were provided with a 13-page glossy booklet called the “The Judgment to Lead,” capped a swing through New Hampshire that Mr. Obama essentially treated as an extended job interview on foreign policy.
On Nov. 26 in Littleton—home of the world’s largest candy counter, with such varieties as “reindeer corn,” “crushed candycane” and “holiday smooth and melty”—Mr. Obama spoke in a high-school gym and answered a question about Arab-Israeli relations, the focus of a 50-nation conference in Annapolis this week.
“We know what the basic outlines are going to begin to look like,” said Mr. Obama. “We do. We know that on one hand, the Palestinians need to renounce terrorism, recognize Israeli’s right to exist, abide by previous agreements. Fatah and Hamas, those two factions have got to sort themselves out so that they can enforce any peace that might emerge. They are also going to have to recognize the right of return, as they understand it, means taking back big chunks of Israel, is not going to happen. But that doesn’t mean that there might not be other means of compensation.
“The Israelis,” he continued, “are going to have to acknowledge that they will have to do something about some of the settlements that they constructed in order for there to be a contiguous and viable Palestinian state.”
In the same question-and-answer period, in which Mr. Obama stood on a stage under orange basketball rims and above a crowd of hormonal teenagers and sweater-clad adults, the candidate was advised by a voter in the bleachers not to “get nasty.”
“How’ve I been doing so far?” shouted Mr. Obama, offering a broad smile and a thumbs-up. The voter nodded meaningfully.
A few minutes after the crowd broke up, Mr. Obama got nasty.
Speaking to some television reporters behind closed doors, Mr. Obama weighed in on Mrs. Clinton’s boast about having been “the face of America” abroad during the Clinton administration—an echo of the assertion by her top Iowa surrogate, former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, that she was “the face of the administration in foreign affairs.”
“If she wants to tout her experience of having visited countries, that’s fine,” Mr. Obama said. “I don’t think that Madeleine Albright would think Hillary Clinton was the face of foreign policy during the Clinton administration. But maybe she’ll disagree with that.”
Then, on Monday night, Mr. Obama made an appearance on ABC’s Nightline in which he said, “I think the fact of the matter is that Senator Clinton is claiming basically the entire eight years of the Clinton presidency as her own, except for the stuff that didn’t work out, in which case she says she has nothing to do with it.”
He added, “What she can’t be is selective, in terms of, you know, cherry-picking and making determinations that she’s now suddenly the face of foreign policy.”
The Clinton campaign responded to the Albright shot by producing the actual Madeleine Albright to say that Mrs. Clinton would “be ready from the very first day to lead our nation in a dangerous and complicated world.” And responding to the foreign policy forum, Clinton spokesman Phil Singer released the following statement: “With the critical foreign policy challenges America faces in the world today, voters will decide whether Senator Obama, who served in the Illinois State Senate just three years ago and would have less experience than any President since World War II, has the strength and experience to be the next president. Senator Clinton, who has travelled to 82 countries as a representative of the United States and serves on the Armed Services Committee, is ready to lead starting on Day One.”
Mr. Obama seems to have settled on his answer.
“Long résumés don’t guarantee good judgment,” said Mr. Obama in a Berlin junior high school. “A long résumé says nothing about your character, and when you are electing the next president, you have got to thing about judgment and character.”
The approach seems to be working—to an extent.
“I lived overseas for 10 years,” said Michael Brosnan, a 53-year-old history teacher who attended the Berlin event. “It does matter that he lived abroad for five years, because he could communicate better and listen to foreign leaders. When it comes down to it, I’d vote for him. I guess it would just send a
good message to the world.”
After taking a step away, Mr. Brosnan turned back and said somewhat disappointedly, “Still, I have a feeling that Hillary is going to get it.”
Follow Jason Horowitz via RSS.