Not quite ready for prime time

During a stop at a McCain campaign event in New Hampshire last November, a New York Times reporter who had been covering the various candidates for months told me that McCain had answered more questions from reporters in the preceding two hours on his bus than Clinton, Obama, and Romney had answered during the entire campaign. I don’t know whether Clinton and Romney became more willing to answer reporters’ questions during the campaign season (in Hillary’s case, I think not). I do know that Obama has continued to limit his exposure to such questions, complaining on one occasion that he had already answered “like eight questions.”

It shows. Thus, in the exchange below, Obama responds to tough but perfectly reasonable questioning from a Las Vegas reporter about his vote on energy legislation by referring to the reporter as McCain’s “proxy”:

RALSTON: I guess what the American people want to know though Senator, is what is the real difference between you and John McCain. You are running this ad tying him to the industry saying that he has taken all of these contributions, but as you well know there is a story out today about how you supported the Dick Cheney bill and he opposed it. That bill gave subsidies to the oil and gas companies, John McCain opposed the bill saying those are tax breaks for those companies, Barack Obama favored it.

SEN. OBAMA: Hold on a second Jon, I thought I was talking to you instead of debating John McCain, but I am happy to let you serve as his proxy. The fact of the matter is that I supported that energy bill saying at the time that those tax breaks were wrong but also recognizing that this was the largest investment in alternative energy in history. And that it was important for us, for the solar industry to get off the ground in places like Nevada, for to get wind kicked off the ground, that that was something that we had to do and I immediately said during that time and subsequently that we should strip out those tax breaks for oil companies. I would point out that in December of last year, we had a vote to strip out those tax breaks for oil companies, there was one Senator that did not vote on that measure, and that was John McCain.

Now in fairness to Obama, this exchange followed some pretty aggressive initial questioning from a pushy talk show host. And Obama actually handled himself well during much of the interview. Even so, a political figure who can’t explain a controversial vote on key legislation without first attacking the professionalism of the reporter is probably not ready to run for, much less serve as, president. Obama could use more time in the Senate to (a) learn about the legitimate role of the press in this country and/or (b) develop thicker skin.

Obama’s problem may be one of temperament. But it’s also true that he’s spent his adult life in a bubble of likemindedness and adulation. Was he ever forced to argue with conservatives — or people presenting the conservative viewpoint as devil’s advocates — at the elite academic institutions he’s been associated with or on the Southside of Chicago where the terrorist William Ayers and the anti-American bigot Jeremiah Wright pass as mainstream figures? I haven’t seen any evidence that he was. We do hear that, as head of the Harvard Law Review (a position he seems to have obtained without being on the road to writing a publishable student note), he listened to the conservative point of view. That’s to his credit. But listening when one is in a position of authority is not the same thing as debating.

Obama’s defenders might counter that he survived a tough race against Hillary Clinton that featured many debates. But these debates were often substance free, since both candidates were running as leftists with few policy differences. Moreover, so deferential was the treatment Obama received in most of the debates by those who actually asked questions that it became the subject of a Saturday Night Live skit.

Obama, then, is well prepared to be anointed president. But he’s playing catch-up when it comes to the hard work Americans traditionally have demanded of those who seek the office.

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