(C) San Francisco Chronicle 2008
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama launched a direct broadside Thursday at New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's claim that she is the experienced Democratic candidate who is "ready to lead" - saying that her experience is "presumed through osmosis, as a consequence of having been first lady."
"Sen. Clinton keeps touting her experience but has no management experience that I can see in her resume," he said in a wide-ranging interview with The Chronicle editorial board in San Francisco.
Obama argued that the success of his own presidential campaign, "where I went from zero, starting from scratch, to compete with a legendary political organization 20 years in the making, built by a former president ... is not an accident."
"It shows my capacity to put together a team and point it in a direction that I think is important," Obama said, adding he has illustrated "the skill sets that are required to move the country."
Obama's impassioned arguments on the issue of experience and leadership come just days after a Nevada debate in which Clinton appeared to suggest that the junior Illinois senator's organization and experience do not match her own and would be lacking in the White House.
Asked during the broadcast what his biggest weakness is, the Illinois senator told MSNBC hosts, "Well, you know, I don't hang onto paper well. My desk is a mess. And I don't try to keep my own schedule," adding that he surrounds himself with qualified people to help him do the job.
In the days since, the New York senator and her campaign team has seized on the theme, suggesting that the failures of President Bush demonstrate that a chief executive of the nation cannot simply be counted on to find good staff, but must exhibit proven skills in managing bureaucracy.
Obama, appearing relaxed and engaged in an hourlong session with Chronicle editors and reporters, insisted that in areas ranging from foreign policy outlook to management style, he has superior credentials, and he depicted Clinton as an occasionally hesitant politician who parses and weighs positions.
"That's part of the reason why I think we have been getting people who are turned off to politics attracted to my campaign ... they sense that I don't try to trim my sails," he said. "If I'm asked in a debate what my biggest weaknesses are, I don't answer by saying, 'I'm just too passionate about poor people,' " he said, laughing. "Or, that I'm too impatient to solve the problems of America. I say, 'Well, you know, my desk is messy - so I need somebody around me.' "
The Democratic candidates were busily crisscrossing California this week to raise money and to underscore the issue of the economy in the days before the crucial Nevada caucuses on Saturday and the Feb. 5 "Tsunami Tuesday" primary, which includes California and more than 20 other states.
Clinton released her first California TV ad Thursday, a spot that deals with the issue of the economy and vows that "I will bring your voice" to the White House. She was in Compton appealing to African American voters as her campaign appeared eager to mend fences with Obama on the issue of race; a key supporter, BET network executive Bob Johnson, apologized for caustic remarks earlier in the week in which he appeared to be referring to Obama's past admission of drug use as a teenager.
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards also was in the state, appearing to make a post-debate dig at both Obama and Clinton, telling voters in Los Angeles: "You don't bring about change by shuffling papers, and you don't bring about change by just giving a speech. We have to actually have some guts, some determination and some fight if we want to bring the change that America so desperately needs."
Obama also appeared at a roundtable discussion before about 100 in San Francisco's Mission District, where he talked about the economy.
In addressing the issue of experience, Obama directly dismissed the notion that Clinton has the upper hand in areas ranging from foreign policy to domestic issues.
He noted that with the issue of the Iraq war, "the president and Sen. Clinton have continually repeated this notion that in 2004 I backed off my opposition to the war."
But he said he "was unequivocal and crystal-clear about my opposition to the war." And now, "I do believe that the combination of my past history on the issue and my willingness to engage in a way that's different from the other (Democratic) candidates ... it gives me a better chance of bringing about the kinds of stabilization without the 10-year or 20-year occupation that the president, the Iraqi foreign minister and John McCain seem to envision," he said.
On the issue of race, Obama also said key differences in outlook and experience define the two campaigns.
"I actually don't think that the comment that Sen. Clinton made about Dr. King was a racial comment," he said, referring to a recent flareup in which she noted that President Lyndon Johnson had pushed the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress, a comment that some African American leaders took as downplaying contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King.
"I think it was illustrative of how she thinks change happens," he said. "She was arguing that Lyndon Johnson, his skill set was what was critical to getting the Civil Rights Act done - as opposed to a movement on the streets. And that indicates a difference in emphasis on how change occurs. But I don't think the comments were racial."
Obama said the 2008 campaign represents "one of those moments where ambition is not a sufficient justification for the presidency. ... There (are) a set of things that I can do that no other candidate can do. I can bring the country together around a working majority for change in a way that Sen. Clinton, for example, cannot."
But in his meeting with The Chronicle, Obama didn't limit his challenges to Sen. Clinton; he directly took on former President Bill Clinton when asked his reaction to a U.S. District Court ruling Thursday rejecting arguments that special "at large" caucus sites for casino and culinary workers were discriminatory to other Nevada voters.
The ruling went against a union tied to Sen. Clinton, the teachers union. It was seen as a victory for Obama, who has been endorsed by the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union, which represents the majority of the workers who will use those locations.
Asked his reaction to an angry outburst by the former president - who in Oakland Wednesday suggested the at-large system was "rigged" - Obama laughed.
"This caucus process was designed by the Democratic Party of Nevada in conjunction with the Democratic National Committee," said Obama. "I, as somebody who's not part of the establishment of the Democratic Party, had no say in the rules ... (but) individuals like Harold Ickes, Clinton's key adviser, were a part of making these rules. And some of the people who filed the lawsuit were a part of making these rules.
"President Clinton now suggests they didn't understand the rules that they designed," Obama said. "This is coming from the campaign of extraordinary detail and thoroughness and experience.
"But somehow, they didn't know what these rules were," Obama said. "Six days before the caucus - two days after I received the endorsement of the Culinary Workers (Union), suddenly these rules are grossly unfair and a violation of 'one person, one vote.' And a lawsuit is filed that would disenfranchise mostly Latino maids, dishwashers and bellhops."
Obama said that was "an implausible argument before the court rules. I am glad the court bought none of it. I think it took about an hour for the court to decide that this lawsuit had no merit.
"And I think at this point we should go out and persuade the caucus-goers of Nevada who the best candidate is," he said.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in a meeting Thursday with the editorial board of The Chronicle:
On his rationale for running:
"This is one of those moments where ambition is not a sufficient justification for the presidency. ... There were a set of things that I can do that no other candidate can do. I can bring the country together around a working majority for change in a way that Sen. Clinton, for example, cannot.
"Rather than simply duplicate the elections of 2000 and 2004, where 47 percent of the country is on one side, and 47 percent of the country is on the other, and 5 percent are in the middle - all of them living in Ohio and Florida, apparently - I believe I can expand the political map, get people involved who haven't been involved before, get independents and Republicans to rally around a progressive, although nonideological, agenda. And I think I can do that more effectively than any of the other candidates in the race."
On whether he has the experience to handle the toughest challenges as president:
"If the question is, do I have the internal fortitude to make tough decisions and take on tough issues, I would say throughout my career I have dealt with very difficult issues.
"Sen. Clinton keeps touting her experience, but has no management experience that I can see in her resume. It's presumed through osmosis, as a consequence of having been first lady. But I would point to this campaign, where I went from zero, starting from scratch, to compete with a legendary political organization 20 years in the making built by a former president.
"That's not an accident. It shows my capacity to put together a team and point it in a direction that I think is important.
"The skill sets that are required to move the country are not different from the skill sets that are required to move somebody across the table. It means listening to them, it means having very clear principles - what you're willing to fight for, where you're willing to compromise. And it means being willing to walk away from the table.
"Those skill sets are the ones, I think, I am most confident I can apply ... where I think I have an edge over Sen. Clinton, who I think has a tendency - when confronted with somebody who doesn't agree with her - to demonize them or push them away."
On his own view of what makes his campaign different:
"I do think that I have tried to conduct my political career and my campaign in a way that is honest and candid and straightforward and minimizes spin.
"It doesn't mean that I have no political sense about me, and that I'm above modulating my tones or positions as I go through ... my career. But generally speaking, I tell the truth.
"And that's part of the reason why I think we have been getting people who are turned off to politics attracted to my campaign. ... They sense that I don't try to trim my sails.
"If I'm asked in a debate what my biggest weaknesses are, I don't answer by saying, 'I'm just too passionate about poor people' [laughs]. Or that I'm too impatient to solve the problems of America. I say, well, you know, my desk is messy - so I need somebody around me."
Asked what he meant when he said, "Generally speaking, I tell the truth," Obama said with a laugh, "What I meant was that I always tell the truth, but sometimes you avoid telling hard truths.
"And one of the things I've tried to in this campaign is to tell people what they need to hear, as opposed to just what they want to hear." He said observers have noted that "there is a core there. ... I think that core is something that I communicate."
On his foreign policy experience:
"There's going to be a lot of repair work to be done internationally. This is an area where Sen. Clinton and others have suggested they are most concerned about my experience. It's actually the area where I most trust my judgment, because I've lived, traveled, have family overseas. If you look at my track record over the last three or four years on big issues - like opposition to the war in Iraq, the need to engage directly with Iran, our approach toward Pakistan and putting all the eggs in the Musharraf basket - on big strategic issues, I've been right and the conventional thinking in Washington has been wrong."
On how an Obama presidency would change the country:
"The day I'm elected and sworn in, not only does this country look at itself differently, but I think the world looks at itself differently. And that's not just symbolic. When I go to a poor country and talk to them about America's obligations, but also that poor country's obligations to help itself by dealing with corruption or to reduce ethnic tensions, I do with credibility as somebody with a grandmother who lives in a small village in Africa without running water. If I convene a meeting of Muslim leaders ... I do so with the credibility of somebody who lived in the most populous Muslim country on Earth for four years and has a sister who is half-Indonesian. ... That will allow me ... to be an effective spokesperson for a different version of American foreign policy."
On differences between himself and Sen. Clinton on health care:
"I admire the fact that President Clinton and Sen. Clinton tried to reform health care (in the 1990s). But I believe they did it in the wrong way. It goes to the point of accountability. Their theory was you go behind closed doors, you come up with your theory with the help of your technical experts. You don't even invite members of Congress from your own party into the negotiations and discussion. And while they were behind closed doors, the insurance company was busy shaping public opinion as well as maneuvering Congress, and by the time they released it ... it was dead in the water. Now, I would do things differently. I would have a table, around which you'd have doctors, nurses, patient advocates. The insurance ...companies would get a seat at the table; they just would not get to buy every chair.
"And I would put my plan forward ... and these negotiations would be on C-Span ... so the public would be part of the conversation and would see the choices being made. ... That builds in accountability in the system."
Chronicle staff writer Joe Garofoli contributed to this report. E-mail the writers at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Credit: Carla Marinucci Chronicle Political Writer
|Caption: Sen. Barack Obama answers a question from teacher Kara Daillik during an appearance Thursday in San Francisco's Mission District. - Brant Ward / The Chronicle|