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Obama again takes heat over Pakistan comment

August 7, 2007 |  8:04 pm

Barack Obama, the new kid on the block, received another scolding tonight from his elders in the Democratic presidential race over his willingness to publicly discuss specific actions he might take to fight terrorism. And as the dispute played out at a candidate debate in Chicago, it's increasingly evident that this looms as a potentially defining issue for the first-term senator from Illinois--it could stick him with an "inexperienced" label that will be hard to shake, or serve his purposes of offering himself as a clear-cut, fresh alternative.

The matter at hand was Obama's assertion last week that if intelligence information merited it, he would have the U.S. "act" against terrorists in Pakistan if that country's leader failed to do so. Several of his rivals, as they have previously, wanted to focus on the appropriateness of Obama even broaching the topic.

Hillary Clinton summed up the basic criticism that she, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden have been directing at Obama. "I do not believe that people running for president should engage in hypotheticals," she said. "You should not always say everything you think if you're running for president, because it can have consequences across the world."

Dodd chimed in, saying, "It was a mistake in my view to suggest somehow that going in unilaterally ... into Pakistan, was somehow in our interest. That, I think, is dangerous."

Obama initially fumbled his response, saying, "I did not say that we would immediately go in
unilaterally" (it's hard not to interpret what he said last week as anything other than exactly that). But then he came up with a crowd pleaser in responding to Clinton's call for discretion, saying, "We're debating the most important foreign policy issues that we face, and the American people have the right to know."

The line won him...   

...a burst of applause from the forum's large union crowd (the debate was sponsored by the AFL-CIO).

Obama also had been ready a few minutes earlier, when the Pakistan matter first came up. He provided a sound bite that in one fell swoop reminded astute listeners that Clinton, Dodd, Biden and another of the presidential contenders, John Edwards, all voted as U.S. senators in 2002 to authorize the Iraq war (Obama, a state lawmaker in Illinois at the time, had criticized the push to attack the country).

“I find it amusing," Obama said, "that those who voted to authorize and engineer the biggest foreign policy disaster in our generation are now criticizing me.”

We must confess that we found it amusing later in the debate when Obama, in parrying a truly trick--and irrelevant--question from sports-reporter-turned-news-commentator Keith Olbermann, decided to take Clinton's advice about not always tipping his hand.

Olbermann asked if Obama, as president, would honor Barry Bonds with a White House ceremony recognizing the home run record the slugger is on the cusp of setting. Some in the crowd moaned; Obama noted that, going into the game in San Francisco tonight, Bonds "has still got to hit one more, and it has been taking a while."

Olbermann pressed, but Obama was not about to either embrace or reject the player whose pursuit of the record has been shadowed by steroid allegations. "He hasn't done it yet, so we will answer the question when it comes."

In this case, the deft non-response seemed called for.

[UPDATE: Obama barely dodged the issue. His response came just a couple of hours before Bonds broke the record with his 756th home run.]

Clinton also was a frequent target in the debate; a full report by The Times' Peter Nicholas can be found here on The Times website and in Wednesday's print editions. A video version is available here. And a Paul Brownfield review is available here in the Show Tracker blog.

-- Don Frederick

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