Obama Sharpening His Blades

Washington Matters

Obama Sharpening His Blades

Barack Obama has a problem. He's more than a bit of a throwback -- a 21st Century politician trying to revive America's tradition of sweeping oratory and grand themes to a national audience accustomed to soundbites, captured more by action than grace. To rely on the tired but useful metaphor of sports, can someone who is an accomplished figure skater survive the body checks and slashing of NHL hockey?

He has a way to go, but Obama is showing signs that he has the agility and strength to compete in the gloves-on-the-ice fisticuffs of this era's hyperpartisan campaigns.

Having survived a series of punches during what was likely his last debate with Hillary Clinton, Obama showed in a brief, long-distance exchange with John McCain Wednesday that he may be able to give as good as he gets in what would be a far tougher battle with a Republican foe. Democrats' greatest fear is that in a debate over Iraq and national security, a key battleground in the general election, Obama would appear callow against McCain. But when McCain let lose with his "I've got some news -- al Quaeda is in Iraq" line  to try to portray Obama as ill-informed, Obama effectively turned the tables with his own "I've got news for John McCain" line that linked the nearly certain GOP nominee to President Bush and a war that has fallen far short of its goals.

Clinton is seeing the Democratic nomination slip away because she hasn't sold voters on her message that Obama's lack of experience will make him an easy target for a seasoned campaigner like McCain. Obama showed yesterday that he's determined not to let that happen. 

But Obama also displayed another essential trait Wednesday -- quick reflexes. He has a tendency to have a long windup. His points don't come in soundbites, but in a slowly building cascade of points and rhetoric. He can transfix an audience that way, but stump speeches quickly grow old and become background noise in a fall campaign fought out in a 24-hour news cycle that constantly needs fresh meat and new twists on old messages -- a constant series of fending off and delivering punches.

In addition to pointing to his abbreviated resume, Clinton has been warning Democrats that Obama was simply not prepared for the rough and tumble tactics that Republicans will deploy against him. McCain did Obama a big favor Wednesday by giving him the opportunity to undercut that argument.