[13 May 2007]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
WASHINGTON - Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama mocked President Bush for constantly “talking tough” as the Illinois senator spoke about judgment in a crisis during a television interview aired Sunday.
During the appearance on ABC News “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” Obama also tried to assure viewers that as president he would retaliate swiftly for any terrorist attack against the United States.
On an upcoming Senate vote on funding for the war in Iraq, Obama said he would not support another funding package that gives Bush “a blank check” to continue the war.
But Obama indicated he would be amenable to a compromise that continued funding with “benchmarks” for progress by the Iraqi government toward political goals such as an agreement on distributing the country’s oil wealth among Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic groups.
“There’s got to be something that signals the president is changing course and that there are consequences to the Iraqi government failing to meet some of the benchmarks that we are talking about,” Obama said.
Much of the discussion in Washington surrounding a war-funding package has centered on including benchmarks in the legislation, although there is no agreement on any penalties for failure to meet them. Several moderate Republicans have suggested the penalty for failure could be reductions in foreign aid to the Iraqi government while some Democrats have argued for troop cuts.
Obama’s criticism of Bush for his combative rhetoric came in answer to a question about whether the senator had the capacity to act ruthlessly when necessary if elected president.
“It’s not just talking tough, because the truth is nobody’s talked tougher than George Bush over the last six years. Being tough means, first of all, not having to talk about it all the time,” Obama said.
Obama said the crucial quality a president needs “is being able to apply judgment, and understanding where can you get things done by cooperation and where do you have to make tough decisions.”
Without going into any specifics, Obama cited his testing in Chicago politics as a sign that he had an inner toughness.
“Somebody who has arrived where I am out of Chicago politics has to have a little bit of steel in them,” he said. “I have the capacity, I think, to make strong decisions even if they’re unpopular, even if they’re uncomfortable, even if sometimes I lose some friends.”
Obama also addressed his answer to a question during the recent Democratic debate in South Carolina on how he would initially respond to a major Al Qaeda attack on two American cities.
Obama, who was the first candidate to respond to the question, is widely thought to have flubbed his answer since, unlike rivals Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards, he focused on an emergency response rather than a retaliatory attack.
“I don’t think there can be any doubt that I would strike swifty, promptly and vigorously if there was an attack on us,” Obama said.
But he noted that he would order a response to a terrorist attack in steps beginning with an emergency response to aid victims and an effort to identify and stop any other imminent attacks. He said he would follow with an assessment to find out who was responsible for the attacks and then a retaliatory response.
“That, I think, is how every American should want their president to operate,” Obama said. “And that is something that I think is the kind of judgment that we’re going to need out of a chief executive, somebody who can respond in a crisis to make sure that the American people are safe, that the international community has confidence about the intelligence that we are operating under.”
Asked about the “most difficult crisis” he has faced during his political career, Obama cited negotiating legislative deals on contentious issues.
“The truth is, in my public life as a legislator, most of the difficult tasks have been to build consensus around hard problems,” Obama said. “What I think the country needs more than anything right now is someone who has the capacity to identify areas of common interest, common good, build a consensus around it and get things done.”
Obama added that he thought the public would have a better sense of how he would manage a crisis by watching how he conducts his presidential campaign.
The lengthy presidential contest, he said, should give voters “a sense of how I deal with adversity, how I deal with mistakes, who I have around me, to make that we’re executing on the things that need to get done.”
On the politically tricky dilemma of bolstering the Social Security system, Obama said “everything should be on the table,” including politically painful choices such as higher taxes, a reduction in benefits and an increase in the retirement age at which Americans become eligible to collect their Social Security pension.
But Obama said even a partial privatization of Social Security “is not something that I would consider.”
“Social Security is that safety net that can’t be frayed and we shouldn’t put at risk,” Obama said.