Despite all the enthusiasm he generates among the liberal base, Barack Obama still faces a huge obstacle to his chances of winning the Democratic nomination: he is not yet seen as a credible commander-in-chief. Sure, he is the most likeable and most inspirational candidate, and everyone has a crush on him. But even Democratic primary voters ultimately move away from inspirational candidates and towards "presidential" candidates. Just ask Howard Dean.
Hillary Clinton and her advisers realized a long time ago that her shot at winning the presidency depends on convincing Americans that she is not weak on defense. Having spent the past seven years single-mindedly positioning herself as a plausible military leader, Clinton has now moved on the attack, trying to portray Obama as young, naïve and not ready to lead America. Obama is none of these things -- but that hasn't stopped the Clinton spin machine from working a number on him.
But Obama is also getting good advice -- and he is intent on breaking through to a place where he is seen as a strong and credible foreign policy leader. Nice, honest and thoughtful aren't enough. His candidacy depends on creating a moment when voters start to see him as a world leader.
Over the past few weeks, Obama has been working to create a commander-in-chief moment, and it has resulted in a rough patch for his campaign. But if he wants to win the nomination, he can't give up working for this moment.
Obama made the right decision in not backing off his comments about pursuing terrorists in Pakistan. At the AFL-CIO debate earlier this week, Chris Dodd urged Obama to admit that his statement about Pakistan was a mistake -- but Obama forcefully defended himself.
Obama is correct to stand by his statement because what he originally said makes perfect sense:
"It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al-Qaida leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will."
Since when did going after al-Qaida become a controversial platform? Bush, Cheney and Giuliani have based their entire political identities on the vague assertion that they will hunt down the terrorists and kill them, but Obama suggests we might actually want to do this and he is hit for being naïve.
The truth is that Bush and Company gave up on catching bin Laden four years ago to focus on what they thought would be an easier time in Iraq. Intent on solidifying her hawkish credentials, Hillary went along for the ride.
Obama, running for the Senate, spoke forcefully and with common sense about the folly of going to war with Iraq. It was that sense of conviction that propelled him to the national stage, and the same qualities are apparent in his comments on Pakistan. He hasn't mastered nuance, and he doesn't say things perfectly, but he happens to be right. How can anyone argue with the assertion that if bin Laden and Taliban leaders are operating inside Pakistan, and Musharraf doesn't have the capability or will to go after them, we should do it ourselves? No candidate should be permitted to dismiss this as a "hypothetical."
The reason people became so enamored with Obama is that he says what he believes and doesn't take a pass on the tough issues. That's in stark contrast to Hillary's words of wisdom on the issue at hand, "You shouldn't always say everything you think if you're running for president."
Amitai Etzioni wrote on HuffPost this week that "we can only hope Obama and his advisers will let Obama be Obama, a community builder, not a bomb thrower." Obama isn't running for the state Senate or Senate anymore, and a campaign based on community-building is not going to cut it. Obama needs to continue to share his world view -- including his view as a military leader -- and not worry about Clinton calling him out.
Obama hasn't had his commander-in-chief moment yet, but he's looking for it -- and his campaign depends on it.