Welcome to the Campaign, Senator Obama

With just over nine weeks left before the Iowa caucuses, Barack Obama has finally decided to take off the gloves. It's about time.

In an interview with Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times -- which, it's worth noting, Obama's camp requested -- Obama said "now is the time" to distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton.

As Isaiah Wilner put it, "Obama finally declared this weekend that he's going to start running for President of the United States instead of class president."

Obama's unwillingness to engage Clinton has been puzzling to many of his supporters. But holding back was apparently, as Nagourney and Zeleny put it, "a calculated decision to introduce himself in early voting states before engaging opponents." It's a calculated decision that just doesn't add up.

We've all heard the old political saw about "establishing the candidate" before going after the opponent. But why separate the two processes? An election, after all, is a contest -- a zero-sum, winner-take-all contest, at that. And a candidate's ability to "engage opponents" is a key element in assessing any presidential contender.

After all, if Obama's not willing to fight for the nomination, what chance will he have in the general election, when things really get tough?

Be careful asking him that, though. According to the Times, "he glared and responded no when asked if he lacked the stomach for confrontational politics."

It would be nice if he showed that same anger at the current political conditions -- and those responsible for them -- that presumably led him to run for president in the first place.

While Obama's newly professed assertiveness is welcome, it remains to be seen if he really intends to follow through.

Just last week, Obama sent out a mailing that was more passive than aggressive. After noting that he was the only candidate to oppose the war from the beginning, it adds, "while others went along, Obama opposed Bush's war plans."

Others? Gee, who could that be? We know who your opponent is, Senator Obama. You're running against Hillary Clinton. It's okay to say her name. The Republican candidates certainly seem to have no problem saying it. Again and again and again. And the reason is because they think she's going to be the nominee. And the reason they think that is because even as late as October 23rd, the Obama campaign seemed reluctant to take Clinton on directly.

This hesitancy has marred Obama's campaign from the beginning and kept him from capitalizing on Hillary's missteps (yes, despite what the traditional media are saying, Clinton hasn't run a flawless campaign). For example, there was that moment in early June, during a Democratic debate in New Hampshire, when Clinton made the jaw-dropping claim: "I believe we are safer than we were [before 9/11]." Obama failed to challenge that statement on stage; instead his campaign released a statement the following day that again failed to include a direct challenge to Clinton: "Senator Obama believes and asserted in the debate that America is less safe since 9/11 largely because the war in Iraq has fueled terrorism around the world." So, despite a glaring error -- one dealing with the essential issue of America's safety -- Clinton was allowed to walk away largely unscathed.

The 2008 election is going to hinge on one key issue -- national security - and Obama's unwillingness to go after Clinton on this vital point was a harbinger of the kid gloves approach to come.

And while Obama absolutely deserves recognition for his early opposition to the war, voters want him to do more than pat himself on the back for being right in 2002. They want to know what he is doing to end the war in 2007.

The last time funding for Iraq was on the table, Obama played it very close to the vest, refusing to say how he was going to vote ahead of time, and waiting until the measure already had enough votes to pass before voting against it. To his credit, he's already vowed to vote against any future funding requests that don't include a specific withdrawal date. But that's not enough. He needs to show leadership on the issue -- and leadership is all about demonstrating the ability to create a new consensus around what you believe.

He should use his considerable platform to reframe the debate away from the White House talking point that if we put a date certain in the funding bill we are not supporting the troops and are giving up on succeeding in Iraq. And that will require talking about this every day until those willing to vote for another funding bill without a date certain feel the heat.

There is another great opportunity that Obama has so far missed: to challenge Clinton's judgment on Iran. Of course, the reason he has missed it, is that his own position on designating Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization is more than a little muddled.

According to the Times, Obama's "aides said that they had been struggling for weeks for a balance between offering a contrast with Mrs. Clinton and avoiding the anger that they said had marked Mr. Edwards's candidacy." Why? Given the current state of affairs in America -- and in Iraq -- what's wrong with expressing a little anger?

Obama's desire for both change and unity has always been something of a paradox because while the vast majority of the country wants change, not everybody wants to change in the same direction. So unity must, at least initially, take a backseat.

The D.C. establishment loves to wax on about bipartisanship. But the truth is that political interests are often in open opposition to one another. Pleasing one will invariably infuriate another. Which isn't to say there aren't policies which are unequivocally good for the whole country -- policies like putting an end to torture, or stopping the war, or insuring children. But not everyone is united behind those unequivocally-good-for-the-whole-country policies. And voters want a nominee who isn't afraid to do or say something that's going to piss some people off.

That's partly what the primary process is about -- Democratic voters deciding who will fight as their proxy.

Last week a new group called "Democratic Courage," headed by Glenn Hurowitz, was formed. According to its website, "Democratic Courage is made up of leaders and activists in the progressive movement. We believe that political courage is the key to political victory. Americans want a leader who will stand strong for his or her beliefs -- and not back down in the face of lobbyist pressure or Republican attacks."

And they have no problem drawing distinctions with Clinton:

"Like many Democrats, we believe that Hillary Clinton has repeatedly given in too easily to pressure -- and too often decides her policies not on the basis of what's right, but on the basis of what polls and focus groups tell her. As history shows, that's a dangerous road for Democrats and for the country. We believe there are other candidates who would be stronger leaders and have a much better chance of winning in 2008."

It's the kind of thing Obama needs to start saying -- loudly and often, coupled with real leadership on Iraq and Iran -- if he wants to keep the run-up to the nomination from becoming a Clinton victory parade.