There is an argument to be made for America’s never-ending presidential campaign in that it tests a candidate in a variety of different ways. It examines a potential president’s physical stamina, ability to organize and prioritize, strategic thinking, tactical ability, and gifts of persuasion.
Eventually, it will also test a candidate’s ability to handle adversity. Judging by what has transpired this week for Barack Obama and his suddenly faltering campaign, one would think the candidate would have had a bellyfull of untoward occurrences, staff gaffes, bad luck, and perhaps a touch of incompetence on the part of the candidate himself.
It began Monday with Obama’s worst performance before the national media to date. The candidate has been chided in the past for his lack of press availability so perhaps the media was a little on edge as Obama, smiling, stepped up to the podium.
He wasn’t smiling when he stepped down 15 minutes later. After a staffer called out “Last question,” Obama didn’t even wait for the query but instead, stomped away while the press roared out a cacophony of questions about Tony Rezko and the NAFTA flap at the retreating candidate. Opening himself up to derision, the candidate turned back briefly and with a forced smile on his face, pleading with the press, “C’mon guys. I answered like 8 questions.”
The Chicago Sun Times, whose reporters were a big part of making the presser an uncomfortable experience for the candidate, taunted Obama; first, with a piece that featured the phone number of the newspaper in the headline asking the candidate to call in and answer questions about his relationship with Tony Rezko – this after Obama said that he had been unable to sit down with reporters about the matter. Then today, the Sun Times takes Obama to task for only answering 8 questions:
Try to imagine President Bush, fleeing questions coming at him fast and furious over a controversy, closing a news conference by saying, “Come on, I just answered like eight questions.” Democrats in Congress and liberal interest groups would be shouting coverup. The editorial pages of the national newspapers would be thundering outrage. The late night comedians and left-wing blogs would be heaping ridicule on him.
Or contrast Obama’s avoidance strategy to John McCain’s response to what was universally considered a shoddy New York Times story. It alleged two disillusioned McCain aides eight years ago thought he might have had a romantic relationship with a lobbyist. McCain met with reporters and took every question they had about the article.
Obama is lucky the Rezko affair is a Chicago issue with which national reporters are unfamiliar. And, given what’s known today, it’s hard to see how the Rezko case could wound Obama’s political ambitions. But for that reason, it’s hard to understand his reluctance to answer questions from the Chicago investigative reporters who know the Rezko issues best.
Tuesday only got worse. Still reeling from fallout from the NAFTA kerfluffle and lost in the excitement of the primaries was something Obama said that John McCain and the Republicans have carefully filed away, sure to bring up at some point in the general election campaign if Obama were to win the nomination: That the Sermon on the Mount justifies same sex unions and abortion:
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) told a crowd at Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio, Sunday that he believes the Sermon on the Mount justifies his support for legal recognition of same-sex unions. He also told the crowd that his position in favor of legalized abortion does not make him “less Christian.”
“I don’t think it [a same-sex union] should be called marriage, but I think that it is a legal right that they should have that is recognized by the state,” said Obama. “If people find that controversial then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which I think is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans.” ((Hear audio from WTAP-TV)) St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans condemns homosexual acts as unnatural and sinful.
Then there was the results from the primaries themselves. Obama was swamped in Ohio and ambushed in Texas – perhaps by Republican crossover votes for Hillary. His momentum destroyed, the candidate gave a perfunctory speech that lacked passion and fire following his defeats.
Wednesday dawned to a whole new campaign. A Gallup poll showed Obama trailing Clinton for the first time in weeks. The campaign then got down to business firing an awkward salvo at Hillary Clinton, taking her to task for not releasing her tax returns. This was somewhat overshadowed by news that Obama’s name figured prominently on a Columbian terrorist group’s computer. Clinton meanwhile, undercut Obama’s campaign by suggesting she would take him as a running mate. This had the effect of freezing Super Delegates who may have been willing to bolt for Obama between now and the Pennsylvania primary 7 long weeks away.
By Thursday, it appeared the Obama campaign was in disarray. Unpaid advisor Samantha Powers – Obama’s most visible foreign policy spokesperson – began a series of incomprehensible verbal faux pas that shook the organization to its roots. First, she referred to Hillary Clinton as a “monster.” Naively trying to take back the comment, by late afternoon it was plastered all over the internet.
But Powers was far from finished. In another interview, she insulted British PM Gordon Brown by averring “I am confused by what’s happened to Gordon Brown. I thought he was impressive.” And for the piÃ¨ce de rÃ©sistance , Powers cut the legs out from underneath Obama’s anti-war position by claiming that the candidate’s plan to withdraw troops from Iraq was a “best case scenario:”
“He will, of course, not rely on some plan that heâ€™s crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. Senator,” she said at one point in the interview.
Power downplayed Obama’s commitment to quick withdrawal from Iraq on Hard Talk, a program that often exceeds any of the U.S. talk shows in the rigor of its grillings. She was challenged on Obama’s Iraq plan, as it appears on his website, which says that Obama “will remove one to two combat brigades each month, and have all of our combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months.”
“What heâ€™s actually said, after meting with the generals and meeting with intelligence professionals, is that you â€“ at best case scenario â€“ will be able to withdraw one to two combat brigades each month. Thatâ€™s what theyâ€™re telling him. He will revisit it when he becomes president,” Power says.
“While Senator Obama campaigns on his plan to end the war, his top advisors tell people abroad that he will not rely on his own plan should he become president. This is the latest example of promising the American people one thing on the campaign trail and telling people in other countries another. We saw this with NAFTA as well,” Clinton said.
“He has attacked me continuously for having no hard exit date and now we learn that he doesn’t have one -â€“ in fact he doesn’t have a plan at all according to his top foreign policy adviser,” she said. “He keeps telling people one thing while his campaign tells people abroad something else I’m not sure what the American people should believe but I would refer you to the BBC interview in which the top foreign policy adviser is speaking about senator Obama and Iraq,” Clinton said.
The day was not done.
Another staffer, Susan Rice, provided a kick in the teeth when she blurted out on national television that neither Obama or Hillary were ready to take that 3:00 AM phone call featured in the most effective campaign ad to date:
“Clinton hasn’t had to answer the phone at three o’clock in the morning and yet she attacked Barack Obama for not being ready,’’ Ms. Rice said. “They’re both not ready to have that 3 a.m. phone call.”
The sun came up on Friday and the Samantha Powers issue had reached critical mass forcing her resignation. One prominent aide, Zbigniew Brzezinski , publicly disagreed with the decision to throw Powers under the bus while other Democrats piled on the Obama campaign. It was “amatuer hour,” according to some. The entire day was spent in damage control on Powers and the rest with the candidate himself feeling for a means to attack Clinton without coming off too negatively.
To top off the dreary day, it didn’t take long for the Chicago trial of Obama’s long time friend and patron Tony Rezko to do damage; Obama’s name was brought up by Rezko’s defense attorney in his opening arguments to the jury.
But beyond the questions about Powers and Rice, there was a feeling that things were getting out of control. The staff was going off on their own and projecting their own opinions rather than sticking to the campaign script. This came into sharper focus today as Obama’s chief intelligence advisor came out in favor of immunity for telecoms – in direct contravention of the candidate’s position and a statement that has gotten the left roots in an uproar:
In a new interview with National Journal magazine, an intelligence adviser to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign broke with his candidateâ€™s position opposing retroactive legal protection for telecommunications companies being sued for cooperating with a dubious U.S. government domestic surveillance program.
“I do believe strongly that [telecoms] should be granted that immunity,” former CIA official John Brennan told National Journal reporter Shane Harris in the interview. “They were told to [cooperate] by the appropriate authorities that were operating in a legal context.”
“I know people are concerned about that, but I do believe that’s the right thing to do,” added Brennan, who is an intelligence and foreign policy adviser to Obama.
That wasn’t just a personal opinion, Brennan made clear to Harris. “My advice, to whoever is coming in [to the White House], is they need to spend some time learning, understanding what’s out there, identifying those key issues,” including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, he said—the law at the heart of the immunity debate.
Question for the Obama camp: Is anybody in charge these days?
Obama is now being questioned about everything from campaign strategy to his judgment on choosing aides. And the fact that some of those aides have gone off the reservation on vitally important issues would seem to indicate a lackadaisical approach to controlling the message of the campaign.
Contrast the Obama’s campaign scattershot message lately with that of the Clinton camp werre everyone from the candidate on down to surrogates knows what the talking points are for the day and delivers a consistently clear message. It is that kind of discipline that appears to be lacking from the Obama camp and will only raise more questions about the inexperienced Obama’s fitness for the highest office in the land.