Debate Coverage: The Obama Question

The more time passes, the less the public cares for a political parade of presidential candidates. Yesterday’s Democratic debate on ABC began with no frills when moderator George Stephanopoulos broached  the  question: “Is Barack Obama experienced enough to be president?”  The answer is no, but none of the Dems would say that directly.

Leading the race at 27%, according to an ABC poll, Obama’s response regarding diplomatic relations with volatile nations in the previous debate has generated heat with Sen. Hillary Clinton (NY). Clinton has said Obama’s ideas to meet with foreign leaders — in places like North Korea and Iran — was naïve and irresponsible.

But on the Iowa stage, Clinton praised her own experience instead of describing Obama’s. When pressed by Stephanopolous, she conceded that, “I do not think that a president should give away the bargaining chip of a personal meeting with any leader, unless you know what you’re going to get out of that.”

Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Gov. Bill Richardson (NM) toed the party line but ultimately said  that Obama was deficient in experience for president. Obama, last to answer, jokingly said, “Well, you know, to prepare for this debate, I rode in the bumper cars at the state fair…”

More seriously, he claimed that we “shouldn’t be afraid” of meeting with threatening countries and it was “common sense” to take out Osama bin Laden if he were “in our sights…before he plans to kill another 3,000 Americans,” in reference to his own recent comments regarding a potential invasion of Pakistan if bin Laden were there. 

At one point, Obama argued that experienced people were responsible for what the Dems insist is the failed war in Iraq.  Though he didn’t say it directly, Obama seemed to be saying that experience was a bad thing.

This moved the discussion towards nuclear weapons. Obama has decried their use in the past — and was criticized by Clinton for ruling them in out. Former Sen. John Edwards (NC) said he “would not talk about hypotheticals” when it comes to nuclear weapons but he would eventually “lead an international effort to…eliminate nuclear weapons from the planet.”

Clinton and Richardson wanted to keep all options “on the table,” effectively safety netting future actions when their words could come back to haunt them. The question is, who can deal most effectively with these threats should they become reality?

Democrats’ recent Congressional takeover is part of the change Obama attempts to promote with his campaign. During the debate, he capitalized on his fresh-faced reputation, saying America needs “somebody who can break out of the political patterns that we’ve been in over the last 20 years.”

Edwards agreed that the ’06 election results were a positive step for America. But the unkept promises, irresponsible decisions and careless statements of the party’s top leaders — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid — have been disappointing thus far.

When Stephanopoulos played a clip of Karl Rove, departing deputy chief of staff for President Bush, speaking about Clinton’s negative popularity numbers, she blew it off as nothing more than “a Republican attack machine” and moved along to universal healthcare.

Edwards — notable of late for strongly (and for the most part, hypocritically) condemning opponents — criticized Clinton for taking money from lobbyists. She claimed there was an “artificial distinction” in this argument because others just “take money from the people who employ and hire lobbyists and give them their marching orders.”

More importantly, the candidates lapsed into familiar “end the war” talking points. Richardson said his plan was to get the troops out and start diplomacy talks. It was Joe Biden, once again, who delivered the only realistic approach to the war. “If we leave Iraq and we leave it in chaos,” he said. “There’ll be regional war. The regional war will engulf us for a generation.  It’ll bring in the Shia, it’ll bring in the Saudis, it’ll bring in the Iranians, it’ll bring in the Turks…”

Clinton said she agreed with Biden but seemed hesitant to fully commit and Edwards said that any Democrat President would end the war. Edwards continued, saying that “the differences between all of us are very small compared to the differences between us and the Republican candidates, who the best I can tell are George Bush on steroids.”

His point is not music to liberal ears, but Biden’s approach masters the rest. “This war must end, but there’s much more at stake as to how it ends.”

Obama clung to his usual strongpoint — never having supported the Iraq war, and chided his opponents for their previous decisions, bringing it back to the experience issue. “Nobody had more experience than Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and many of the people on this stage that authorized this war,” he noted, bolstering his credentials on the left.

Changing directions, Stephanopoulos read a viewer question on the power of prayer to prevent  disasters . Each candidate appeared genuine in their dedication to prayer, though Clinton and Edwards history of insincerity begged for skepticism. Edwards said he didn’t “think you can prevent bad things from happening through prayer” and Obama averted it back to politics, saying, “We’ve got to express those values through our government, not just through our religious institutions.”

Questions on agriculture, fair trade, and education dominated the remainder of the debate. Clinton said she hoped to “maximize the impact of what we’re trying to export and quit being taken advantage of by other countries” and Obama said we have to be “hard bargainers” in the age of globalization. A trend focused on the family farmers of America dominated the agricultural portion.

One of the last questions came from an Alabama citizen, asking for a time when candidates have failed to tell the whole truth. While some, like Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich refused to relent, others like Clinton and Edwards, opted for authorizing the war as an untruthful time, though it seemed just another opportunity to blame Republicans without accepting responsibility.

Each seemed adamant in reforming or hacking No Child Left Behind and Richardson went so far as to suggest a $40,000/year federal minimum wage, advocating that currently teachers are “disrespected.”

The pander-worthy state of public debate remained in tact but finally, an unapologetic focus on the authentic candidates — Clinton and Obama — rose above the rest of those on the stage who are now just playing house.