Barack Obama: Pennsylvania Reveals the Frontrunner’s Flaws

by Rick Rockwell*

Hoping to win votes, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) has told us: “Truthfulness during campaigns makes a difference.”

But how does Obama deal with the truth?

ABC News ambushed the Democratic front-runner last week during a debate for presidential candidates in Philadelphia. And rightly, ABC has faced criticism from media critics and political pundits for its performance. ABC’s problems revolved around tone and appearance. Debate moderator Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, who aided in the questioning, were not even handed. Although Gibson and Stephanopoulos asked tough questions of both Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), most of the pointed questions were directed at Obama, as noted in this blog’s criticism of that debate. This blog first criticized Stephanopoulos back in January for acting almost as a surrogate for the Clinton campaign, but it took the biggest debate stage yet of this political season to expose those political leanings to a wider audience. ABC should retire Stephanopoulos from any journalistic role with the campaign, or change his title merely to pro-Clinton pundit.

But in ABC’s defense, those questions needed to be asked of Obama. Yes, tougher questions should have been asked of Clinton too, but if Obama cannot deal with this barrage, how will he hold up in the campaign to come against the Republicans?

And the problem is that Obama is not leveling with the public.

If Obama’s church and pastor voice leftwing criticism of U.S. foreign policy, including moral support for Hamas, then Obama needs to explain rationally why that makes sense to his political base, instead of getting defensive or disassembling about how he was unaware. Could it be that Obama is farther to the left in his home community than he is on the national stage, or than what he is willing to say in a speech or debate?

Obama has apologized for criticizing Clinton’s base of rural Pennsylvania voters as “bitter” and clinging to religion and guns in the face of crisis. Obama’s remarks came before a group in San Francisco. And he was called elitist for making those remarks. But isn’t this the typical politician shaping his message for the crowd at hand? In this case, isn’t this Obama saying it’s those Reagan Democrats supporting Clinton, not the real core of the party?

Obama is as slick as either of the Clintons when it comes to shaping his message for the moment. When Sen. Clinton attempted to hang slumlord Antoin "Tony" Rezko around Obama’s neck during a debate in South Carolina, Obama responded by telling us that he had only spent “five hours” reviewing a legal case involving Rezko. However, a trial under way in Chicago reveals a much deeper connection between Rezko and Obama. That trial is not getting the same national coverage as the candidate debates though. And Obama’s retort to Clinton when those charges were made was to say the truth matters, as if she was the only one who lies to get ahead (see her Tuzla whopper) in politics.

So as Pennsylvania goes to the polls tomorrow (April 22) there’s more spin and political fog for the average voter to navigate. The drumbeat from Obama’s surrogates in the past five weeks has been that Clinton must win in all three of the next states in the primary season, or she should bow out. Those three states are Pennsylvania, Indiana, and North Carolina. Certainly, Obama has thrown a lot of money from his campaign war chest into Pennsylvania to blunt what looks like another Clinton win in the making. Another part of the expectation game: Obama’s surrogates are telling the media if Clinton doesn’t win in Pennsylvania by eight or ten percentage points then it shows she is too weak to catch up. This is all spin designed to quash any momentum that the Clinton campaign has built up as more questions arise about a politician that few voters outside of Chicago really know.

More questions need to be asked of Obama, not less. And if he’s uncomfortable with the role of frontrunner, that in itself is very revealing.

*Rick Rockwell is a former producer for ABC News.

For more background on the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:

(The political graphic is from the First Friday Collective.)

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