During a sweep through New Hampshire this week, Barack Obama consistently contrasted his skills, experience and character with those of Hillary Clinton, who often, but not always, went unnamed.
At the end of a Sunday night address in Berlin New Hampshire, he said that one of the considerations he had to take into account before running for president was “could we win.”
“And what I always knew was that you know what we couldn’t compete nationally in terms of the brand name of the you know—the Clinton name is the dominant brand name in Democratic politics,” he said. “But what we could do was compete in early states and get known by people, and what we discovered is that when people know me as well as they know the other candidates we do very well. So now you are seeing after 10 months of campaigning, and everybody is noticing, you know what, he is doing really well in Iowa and he’s doing really well in New Hampshire and South Carolina. So we believe in our strategy and it’s working.”
A few minutes later he added, “I think Republicans and independents are more open to my message than others. And by the way the polls bear this out. The surveys consistently show that Republicans and independents are more open to my message.”
This morning, Obama held a round table discussion in Littleton with six New Hampshire Independent voters, about half of whom said they counted themselves as his supporters before showing up to the historic community center on Main Street where the event was held. During the discussion, which was watched from behind a white string by a small audience of television cameras, photographers and print reporters, Obama said, “I’m not above making political calculations in terms of what I can and cannot do.”)
In Berlin, Obama hewed close to his stump speech, which itself seems designed to highlight contrasts between himself and Clinton. Loose and seemingly in a good mood, Obama told fewer than 200 voters in a junior high school gym, “What increasingly the American people understand, if we want to bring about real meaningful change, not change as a slogan but, change we can believe in, we’re going to have to do more than just change political parties in the White House.” (The slogan written behind him on a banner read “Change We Can Believe In.”)
Obama continued, “We’re going to have to change how politics is done in Washington. We’ve got to completely change how we do business in Washington. Now if you don’t believe that, think about some of the issues we’re talking about this election. How many years have we been talking about health care reform? We’ve been talking about it for decades, through Democratic and Republican administrations.”
Obama then pointed at a baby who had been crying through much of his opening remarks. “See that little guy out there, he’s frustrated. We’ve been talking about it so long, it’s time to do something about it.”
Most of the other applause lines in Obama’s stump seemed calibrated to contrast his candidacy with the common perception that Clinton is the ultimate Washington insider.
“So if we want to bring about change we are going to have change the way business is done in Washington,” Obama said in Berlin. “That’s why I am always amused when I hear other candidates say, ‘Vote for me, I know how to work the system, the system hasn’t been working for us. They say vote for me because I know how to play the game better in Washington.”
He added that when people (read: Hillary Clinton) say he is naïve or lacks experience what they really mean is, “You know what, the guy needs to be in Washington longer, they believe they have to stew me a little bit more, boil all the hope out of me.”
He continued, “And I have to remind them when I hear this, you know Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had two of the longest resumes in Washington. They did. And led us into the worst foreign policy disaster in a generation. So long resumes don’t guarantee good judgment. A long resume says nothing about your character and when you are electing the next president you have got to thing about judgment and character.”
Following a debate in Las Vegas earlier this month, Clinton aides ridiculed Obama for what they said was his bungling of a question about balancing national security with human rights advocacy around the world. National security was always the top priority the Clinton campaign said,—Clinton aide Mandy Grunwald at the time told me it was “presidential politics 101”—and Obama’s not knowing that again amounted to proof of his inexperience.
In his speech in Berlin, Obama once again embraced that fight, arguing against what he set up as a binary choice.
“I don’t accept that there is a contradiction between our national security on the one hand and our respect in the world on the other,” he said. “You know, being respected will make us safer.”
He added, “Part of what I’m trying to explain in this campaign is that if we are smart about our security then we are going to start doing business differently. I got into an argument with Senator Clinton about this because I said I will meet not just with our friends. I as president will meet with our enemies.”
Here he was interrupted with applause.
“And she said you know that’s naïve, they might use you for propaganda purposes,” he said. “I am not worried about losing a propaganda battle with a bunch of dictators.”
At the end of the speech, Obama listed the reasons he was running. After talking about getting around the Clinton name brand by concentrating on the early states, he said the biggest question was should he run. He decided he should, partly because, as he put it, “The day I’m inaugurated, not only does America look at itself different. But the world looks at America,” he said.
His explanation of why the world would look at America differently goes back, again, to the fight he and Clinton are having about what the appropriate level of experience of the job is. (She mocks his qualification of living abroad as a child; he mocks hers of having lived in the White House as first lady.)
On Sunday, Obama made his argument like this:
“I think the next president has to engage in a level of personal diplomacy around the world to repair the damage that has been done. And when I travel around the world, and I go to a poor country, those leaders will know, that Obama has got a grandmother who lives in a small country, in a small village in Africa, without electricity and without running water. He knows what our people are going through, he has seen it first hand. He hasn’t just read it in a book. He understands it. If I go to talk to Muslim leaders, they say, well, he may be Christian but he’s lived in a Muslim country for several years. He understands our culture and is respectful. And that means that I can them challenge them but also find the common ground in ways that I don’t think any other candidate can do as effectively.”
“And that will make us safer because I’ll have more credibility on the world stage,” he concluded. “Those are the reasons I am running.”