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Underestimate Obama At Your Peril

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I received an email from a friend in Los Angeles last Monday telling me that my buddy Chris Matthews quoted me on the midnight edition of Hardball. Earlier on Monday, I had emailed Chris to vent my frustration. For the last week or so I had been throwing things at my television while listening to Washington insiders tell me what a naive, stupid rookie Barack Obama was. It seemed to me that I had heard it all before, beginning early in the primary season, when Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, Howard Wolfson, called the Obama campaign "amateur hour." Then, everyone in Washington chuckled about how Hillary was running rings around Obama, how he was being "too nice" while she smashed him up. Then, in July and August, those who really understood politics insisted that "Obama's letting McCain define him," and he was blowing the election.

Each time, this Obama guy paid attention to his own clock, and stepped up when he needed to. By holding back on Hillary while he methodically collected delegates, he was able to win over her supporters and actually make many of them enthusiastic for him in the fall. By reacting to McCain with grace, he was able to look like the grownup when the stuff hit the fan.

I think Washington insiders underestimate Obama at their peril, and often look silly doing it. They act like the kid who used to be the smartest kid in the class, until the new kid came along. They remain in denial, convinced they know better.

I try civil cases for a living. To me, the way Washington reacted during the first week of February reminded me of how an occasional client will react with panic while the other side is putting on a case. The client is worried that I'm not doing anything to stop them, and I'm letting them control the agenda. The savvier client stays calm. He knows we are right on the merits, and he knows how it will all play out. The truth is, the other side gets to put on their case. They get to talk, too. Even if it is stupid. You have to sit there and look respectful (and hopefully graceful and confident) while they are doing it. When it's our turn, we will cross examine them and put on evidence, and take out their entrails.

Obama chose to begin by letting the other guys -- the guys who have been wrong for eight years -- have their say. He was nice to them. He had them over for drinks and the Super Bowl. In return, they treated him like a dog, and the people inside the Beltway laughed at how dumb Obama was.

Now, Obama is having his say. He's putting on his evidence. Here in Florida, he called one of his witnesses, our Republican governor, who actually has to deal with the mess his party in Washington has created for him. Obama is driving a wedge between local Republican officeholders and Republican congressmen and senators.

Recently I heard the host of Morning Joe suggest that Washington might have gotten it wrong by beating up on Obama for two weeks, as 67% of the people agree with the way Obama is handling the crisis while 58% are unhappy with the Republicans in Congress. In fact, Obama has again treated his adversaries with respect, whether they deserve it or not. Again, he looks like the grownup, because he is. People outside of Washington really like that.

Some of the experts are saying, "Well, he could have done all this a week ago." But, in fact, now is the time the rubber is meeting the road. Now, its voting time and conference committee time. It's closing argument time. You want to win the case when the jury begins to deliberate.

As I say, underestimate this guy at your peril.