Annotating An Obama Campaign Memo

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TO: Interested Parties

FR: Obama Communications

RE: Obama Wins Debate and Commander in Chief Test

DA: July 24, 2007

Can he be commander in chief? This is a threshold Obama knows he must cross. The campaign probably didn't like the tone of the media coverage. HRC was annointed as presidential for insisting that she would not be a propaganda tool for foreign governments and Obama's answer was her foil.

Here is a meta-problem: Obama is clearly ready to start making clear distinctions with Clinton, but something about the debate format stymies his nerve. It's one thing to say out loud that Hillary Clinton exemplifies Washington double speak. It's quite a bit less powerful to say it in a memorandum sent to reporters.

Last night at the debate, Obama displayed the judgment he will exhibit as Commander in Chief that impressed focus groups conducted by both Fox and CNN.

Debate focus groups are useful, but they come with a caveat: often, people in groups say they expect others want to hear.

He showed his willingness to lead and ask tough questions on matters of war and he offered a dramatic change from the Bush administration's seven-year refusal to protect our security interests by using every tool of American power available – including diplomacy.

Senator Hillary Clinton, however, did nothing to dispel questions that have arisen as a result of her support for the war in Iraq, even as the National Intelligence Estimate has found that our focus on Iraq has hindered our ability to track down and destroy al Qaeda. When pressed, she gave no explanation for not demanding an exit strategy before we invaded a country riven by deep ethnic rivalries that portended civil war and a long, uncertain occupation. Obama warned of such an outcome in 2002, and said the war would undermine us in the battle against Al Qaeda, as has now proven true.

This might be the most direct charge ever lobbed at Hillary by Obama's campaign.

From the debate -- Obama: …one thing I have to say about Senator Clinton's comments a couple of moments ago. I think it's terrific that she's asking for plans from the Pentagon, and I think the Pentagon response was ridiculous. But what I also know is that the time for us to ask how we were going to get out of Iraq was before we went in. And that is something that too many of us failed to do. We failed to do it. And I do think that that is something that both Republicans and Democrats have to take responsibility for. When I am president of the United States, when I send our troops into battle, I am going to be absolutely sure that it is based on sound intelligence, and I'm going to tell the truth to the American people, as well as the families who are being asked to sacrifice.

On issues of national security, Obama made clear that making America safer would require using tough diplomacy with countries like Iran and North Korea that have seen dramatic expansions of their nuclear programs during the seven years of the Bush presidency.


From the debate -- Obama: Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward. And I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them. We've been talking about Iraq -- one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they're going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses.

The questioner asked whether Obama would agree to meet with these leaders "without preconditions," the assumption being that the grandees of our least-favorite countries would be expected to take as much from us as they were willing to give. To Hillary, that's a moral equivalence she would not concede.

Earlier this year, Senator Clinton claimed: I think it is a terrible mistake for our president to say he will not talk with bad people. [Associated Press, 4/23/07]. She reversed herself last night, disagreeing with Senator Obama's assertion that we should use every tool at the president's disposal to address problems before they become threats.

And she said as much in the debate last night. What she didn't say in April, and what she refused to say last night, was that she would approach these countries with a tabula rasa.

Obama's tough but smart approach to America's diplomacy is exactly the kind of change and new thinking that excites voters about an Obama presidency. In the focus group conducted in New Hampshire by CNN, voters showed they were hungry for this approach.

"Tough but smart" is an Evan Bayh phrase, incidentally.
....

The American people choose straight talk over Washington double-speak, and they know that change must be more than a slogan.

In the eyes of the Obama campaign, people want to turn the page and what George Bush has been doing -- the approach they're accusing Clinton of endorsing -- hasn't been working. To Obama, there is a distinction between negotiating out of fear and fearing to negotiate at all. Perhaps the focus group participants saw Clinton's answer as identical to Bushian diplomacy. One might point out the liberal, pacifist inclinations of many primary voters, but this memo is aimed at influencing perceptions of the primary, not the general.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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