It's about time. Two weeks ago, I wrote about a couple of interesting Newsweek stories profiling Barack Obama's campaign for President and I commented, as many before me have suggested, that Obama needed to get tough on Hillary Clinton if he was to overcome her seemingly insurmountable leads in New Hampshire and practically everywhere else across the country. While Obama's campaign for the Democratic nomination for President is about a "new politics of hope," no matter how much the Clinton campaign claims otherwise, challenging Hillary on the issues and about her stances on the issues should be fair game. And Obama can't be scared off and knocked off message by the Clinton machine complaining that any attack on Hillary, issue oriented or not, is a low blow which makes Barack Obama just like any other politician.
Now, with two months to go before the Iowa caucuses, Obama appears ready, and willing, to take Hillary on, directly, and forcefully. The New York Times interviewed Obama this weekend and the resulting article was a fascinating look into the Obama campaign. It also featured Obama directly questioning Clinton's campaign tactics.
Asked if Mrs. Clinton had been fully truthful with voters about what she would do as president, Mr. Obama replied, “No.”
“I don’t think people know what her agenda exactly is,” Mr. Obama added, citing Social Security, Iraq and Iran as issues on which she had not been entirely forthcoming.
“Now it’s been very deft politically,” he said. “But one of the things that I firmly believe is that we’ve got to be clear with the American people right now about the important choices that we’re going to need to make in order to get a mandate for change, not to try to obfuscate and avoid being a target in the general election.”
There's a big difference between mud-slinging and campaigning honestly on the issues. Obama's campaign is about hope and about how he is different from the candidates which have come before. If he stays on issue-oriented attacks, he can beat Hillary and keep his head above the muck. And because Hillary is running a "general election" campaign, acting as if she's already won the Democratic nomination, and tailoring her votes and public speeches accordingly, there's a lot of unease within the Democratic base Obama should be tapping into. And the only way to do it is to point out the differences between him and Hillary.
Predictably, the Clinton campaign has already trotted out their standard line to respond to any Obama attack, legitimate or not, perceived or not.
Asked about Mr. Obama’s remarks, Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman, Howard Wolfson, said, “Senator Obama once promised Americans a politics of hope. But now that his campaign has stalled he is abandoning that strategy and is engaging in the same old-style personal attacks that he once rejected.”
“We are confident,” Mr. Wolfson added, “that voters will reject this strategy, especially from a candidate who told us he would do better.”
Obama can't let Wolfson's words go without somehow responding to them, without pointing out that if Hillary can't take the honest drawing of distinctions between her views and Barack's, how on earth is she going to survive a challenge from a well-funded, hungry, Clinton-hating Republican candidate? Obama is not making personal attacks. He's making political attacks, and that's a distinction with a very big difference. He can't let the Clinton campaign and their rhetoric knock him off message.
The next few Democratic debates are going to be critical for Obama. He not only is going to need to do well, but he's going to need to get the national media talking about a change in the race. If he can come out strong, and forceful, and give his best performance, suddenly, the story won't be about Clinton's inevitability. It will about Obama's surge, and how his change in strategy is refreshing, and how Clinton's the establishment that the American people are tied of. Just as Bill Clinton was the "Comeback Kid" when he was running for the Democratic Nomination, if Obama can gain some momentum in these debates, that will become his new nickname. The media will draw comparisons between Hillary's inevitability and Howard Dean's a year earlier, and suddenly it will be a race again.
It needs to be, because changing the story is the only thing that's going to prevent Hillary Clinton from winning the Democratic nomination. And for Barack Obama, the story can't change soon enough.