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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Obama's Gravitas

Chris Cillizza's Politics Blog -- The Fix

Barack Obama's press conference this morning in Amman, Jordan, was a major moment -- perhaps the major moment -- of the Illinois senator's much-ballyhooed trip abroad this week.

All eyes were on Obama to see how he would perform on a world stage with every political reporter of any consequence either on the trip with him or watching closely on television.

And, as he has done before in the course of the campaign, Obama seemed to be up to the moment -- sensing the need to convey gravitas and bipartisanship while also strongly defending his own beliefs about America's role in Iraq and the broader Middle East.

Gone were the jokes and "rah rah" language that won over many Obama partisans but left many undecided voters wondering whether there was any there when it came to the Illinois senator. Instead, we saw a serious explication of his position on removing combat troops in Iraq, a position bolstered in recent days by repeated calls by the Iraqi government to remove U.S. military forces from the country by 2010.

"Regardless of who becomes next president we are going to have to strip away ideology, strip away the politics," Obama said when asked the proper future course for Iraq. "The next president is going to have to make a series of very difficult judgments."

As for the disagreement between him and Sen. John McCain about the future of the country, Obama again took the high road, insisting he was not interested in having a "colloquy" with the Arizona senator over the next four or five days about the issue because it was not in the best interests of the country. (Well played, although does the average person have any idea what the world "colloquy" means? The Fix had to look it up.)

While Obama largely avoided any attack on McCain or his approach to Iraq, he did offer a vigorous defense of his plan to redeploy troops from the country and dismissed the idea that there were only two ways to approach the future of American involvement: a rigid timetable or an open-ended commitment.

"I reject that those are the only two options," said Obama, adding: "My job, should I be commander-in-chief, is to set a strategic vision for what's best for U.S. national security" -- a directive that requires flexibility and a belief that the situation is not as Manichean as many people in the states present it."

The press conference wasn't all roses for Obama, however, as he provided Republicans more rhetorical ammunition by again refusing to say he should have supported the troop surge last year.

Obama said that "we don't know what would have happened" if the plan he put forward in early 2007 -- a plan that would have had all combat brigades out of the country by March 31 of this year -- had been implemented.

That is sure to be fodder for Republicans who were up in arms last night over the fact that Obama told ABC's Terry Moran that even in hindsight he did not support the troop surge.

Already McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds is out with a statement condemning Obama's attitude toward the surge. "By continuing his opposition to the surge strategy long after it has proven successful and by admitting that his plan for withdrawal places him at odds with General David Patraeus, Barack Obama has made clear that his goal remains unconditional withdrawal rather than securing the victory our troops have earned and the surge has made possible," said Bounds.

(McCain's campaign, too, is already showing signs of using the allegedly fawning coverage of Obama's trip against him. In an e-mail entitled "The Media is in Love", McCain announces a video competition to choose between two different ads that reveal the press' "bizarre fascination with Barack Obama." )

Overall, however, Obama cleared a crucial bar in today's press conference. He looked and sounded presidential at a moment when the eyes of the world were on him.

Will it dramatically affect the race at home when Obama returns? It's hard to tell. But, rest assured that if Obama today had come across as flip or not sufficiently versed on the issues in Iraq and the Middle East, it would have been a major problem for his candidacy. Obama cleared that hurdle with ease.

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