Hillary Clinton's success in Texas and Ohio suggest that questioning Barack Obama's readiness to lead may be a tactic that can resonate with voters. Though exit polling data from Wisconsin and other recent state primaries had suggested that voters saw Obama and Clinton as equally capable to be commander in chief, new numbers reveal a shift. A Newsweek poll now shows Clinton beating Obama on readiness with a 12-point margin.
The poll also finds that only four percent of Democratic primary voters view national security as their top priority. But if Clinton continues to make national security the centerpiece of her campaign, we may see those numbers begin to increase.
Much of the media views Obama as facing a delicate and unique challenge. It will be difficult, they argue, for him to repudiate her attacks without appearing to have abdicated the high ground. For the most part, this portrayal is overblown. The last six months of the Democratic race have included serious and sustained negative attacks from the Clinton campaign; throughout all of it, Obama has been able to attack swiftly from a defensive position without undercutting the rationale of his candidacy, or damaging his persona.
Yet these new attacks do bring with them a sense of urgency. Hillary Clinton has displayed a surprising willingness to paint her Democratic rival as less qualified than the Republican nominee. Her success won't do much to deliver her the nomination, now nearly out of reach. But it may help produce vulnerabilities in Obama's armor, each of which will be meticulously exploited by John McCain. As a result, Obama must respond quickly, making an honest case for his readiness.
But if he is to convince the voters of his readiness to lead, he must first define what it means to be ready.
The presidency requires a vast knowledge base, not just of policy, but of philosophy and history. Each decision requires a distinct framework of thinking, one that has been shaped by collective wisdom. Surely Barack Obama meets this test -- the Harvard Law Review editor, turned constitutional law professor, turned United States Senator. Obama brings to bear a deep understanding of the world around him.
The president must also be capable of asking thorough questions to his advisers, the only real tool for analyzing the validity of disparate arguments. A knowledge base is a prerequisite for such an ability, but it is not sufficient to guarantee it. One must be able to connect what, to some, may seem unconnected, to draw analogies to history and politics that help frame the decision. It requires instinct and perspective, precision and insight. Obama's decisionmaking framework, as described by Cass Sunstein of University of Chicago, is thorough and non-ideological. He is "a careful and even-handed analyst of law and policy, unusually attentive to multiple points of view."
Readiness also requires a coolness under pressure, the ability to stay even-tempered, to be unflappable in a crisis. Neither Clinton nor Obama have had the authority to make decisions even remotely close to those within the power of the president. That is a distinction reserved to only 41 people since George Washington, one of the many reasons to discount a candidate's claims to experience.
But Obama's temperament on the campaign trail does reveal, to some extent, how he responds to pressure. Without exception, Obama has exhibited a calmness, an assured self-confidence that falls well short of arrogance. He is resolute and measured whether winning or losing, and has stayed emotionally intact throughout. If the campaign is a yard-stick for the presidency, Obama is ready.
Armed with a knowledge base, strong instincts, a questioning spirit, and an even demeanor, a president still cannot be ready without judgment. A president must have the ability to gather all that is needed to make a decision. But ultimately, they must make the right one. There can simply be no better metric for judging a presidency. To date, Obama has displayed an almost prophetic judgment.
He was right on the Iraq war in 2002. His judgment was based on a working understanding of Middle East geopolitics, as well as non-ideological instincts and the willingness to ask pointed questions. If there are weapons of mass destruction, but we don't know where they are, what will happen to them when we destroy the government that controls them? Iraq and Iran have balanced each other's power in the region. Will Iran's strength and influence expand when we create a power vacuum? What happens after we gain control of the country? Is there any way to avoid an occupation?
His questions received answers that solidified his opposition.
He has shown similar foresight in other global policy decisions. He questioned whether the U.S. relationship with Pervez Musharraf was the most effective means of dealing with Pakistan. Months later, his concerns have been validated as the U.S. finds itself on the wrong side of a Democratic revolution. He spoke of the need to target senior al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, even without Musharraf's approval. Recently, the U.S. succeeded at doing just that, taking out the third-highest ranking al Qaeda official. He was right to question the Bush administration's saber-rattling toward Iran, once again vindicated by a National Intelligence Estimate that found Bush's case to be far overstated. He has proven, time and again, that his global worldview is sound and sophisticated, and that he has the tools to make the right decisions. In terms of judgment, Obama is clearly ready.
The readiness debate will no doubt continue. But from any honest perspective, the answer to Hillary Clinton's threshold question is clear. Can Barack Obama be an effective commander in chief?
Yes he can.
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