BARACK OBAMA is clear about his position for the Democratic nomination for president. "Hillary Clinton is the default candidate," Obama said in an interview here yesterday before speaking at the YMCA. "She's a quasi-incumbent. Everybody knows her. She's been around for years.
"The Democratic base doesn't dislike her. I think they accurately assess that she's confident and she's intelligent. But I also think that there's not overriding enthusiasm. And that's also been reflected in the national polls. What it means is that Democrats, as they're still making their judgments, are more likely to go with what's familiar until they get more familiar with what I stand for. And now's the time when people start focusing."
Obama conducted a four-day swing in Iowa this week. Iowa is the first caucus state and one where he is virtually tied with Clinton in the polls. Nationally and in other key states, Clinton has a double-digit lead on the rest of the field.
Saying his campaign was far from "panic mode," he said, "I don't think there's a question out there that somehow Hillary Clinton has somehow been more specific on her policies or that the voters are going to make their determination on who's got the best 10-point plan . . . The question is who can unify the country."
Obama depicted himself as the common-sense unifier Thursday and yesterday, channeling John F. Kennedy at the Waterloo Boys and Girls Club, a county fairground in Independence, a nighttime outdoor rally at Luther College, and here. He now has a place in his stump speech where he specifically mentions Clinton.
"I got into a little argument with Senator Clinton, because I said we've got to meet with everybody, not just our friends but also with our enemies," Obama told the rally at Luther College. "She said, 'Oh, that's naïve, that's irresponsible.' And I had to explain, strong presidents and strong countries meet with adversaries and tell them where America stands. When we refuse to meet, it doesn't make us look tough. It makes us look arrogant. JFK once said we should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate."
That earned a rousing cheer. The next day, Obama said in the interview that the references to JFK are "relevant to the comparison of where we're at in our history. JFK came into the scene as the country was breaking out of the '50s into a new era, after World War II and the Korean War. I think we're in one of those similar times where the way we've been doing business is not adequate for the new challenges that we face."
In trying to prove he is more adequate than Clinton for the challenges, he is obliquely keeping prominent Clinton's vote to give President Bush the authority to invade Iraq while reminding people of his opposition in a speech in 2002. Despite some strategists beginning to wonder if that is dated, Obama yesterday said of his speech, "It's held up pretty good. I could deliver that speech today and it would sound like I was just reporting on what had happened over the last five years."
Obama brushed off one symbolic piece of controversy, the fact that he has not worn an American flag lapel pin for several years. "My attitude is that I'm less concerned about what you're wearing on your lapel than what's in your heart. You show your patriotism by how you treat your fellow Americans, especially those who served."
In the interview, Obama added, "Alberto Gonzales wore a lapel pin the entire time he was shredding our Constitution."
While not specifically saying if or when he will step up highlighting the differences between his judgment and that of Clinton, Obama said, "We will be making this case very clear . . . We will make this case explicitly, because I wouldn't be running if I didn't think I was the best person to lead this country."
He said his ability to forge contentious death-penalty legislation in Illinois "stands in contrast to how Senator Clinton operated when she was trying to put healthcare together. A closed process that ended up alienating potential allies. That speaks to judgment."
Obama went out to the audience at the YMCA. In the next weeks they will judge if he has the judgment.