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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

For proof Obama can manage, look at his campaign

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Perhaps the most telling critique leveled by Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign against Sen. Barack Obama, to my mind, is that he lacks executive experience. Clinton considers this a potent contrast. She misses no opportunity to remind us that she is the roll-up-her-sleeves, detail-oriented manager, while he's the academic orator with the messy desk (Of course, as far as executive experience goes, Clinton's record is nearly as slight as Obama's, if you don't count the First Lady period, when she insists her husband was the President.)

I understand how effective the critique can be, particularly if Obama should make it into a general election. Despite all their failures, Republicans miraculously still manage to project some can-do competence to many voters.

And so, last year, I asked Obama directly why a voter should back someone who has never run anything bigger than a legislative office. He responded by pointing to his nascent campaign. He observed that he was up against the full Clinton establishment, all the chits she and her husband had acquired over the years, and the apparatus they had constructed within the party. He had to build a national campaign from scratch, raise money, staff an extremely complex electoral map, and make key decisions on spending and travel. He asked me to judge his executive skills by observing how he was managing a campaign.

By that standard, who isn't impressed? A first-term senator - a black urban liberal - raised more money, and continues to raise much more money, than Sen. Clinton. More to the point, the money he has raised has not come from the well-connected fat cats who do things like donate to the Clinton library. His base is much wider, broader and Internet-based than hers. It has many more small donors.

Now look at the strategy he laid out last year, as he explained it to me and others. Iowa was the key. If he didn't win Iowa, it was over. But if he could win Iowa, he would prove the principle that a black man could transcend the racial issue, helping in New Hampshire, and then also helping him peel off what was then majority black support for the Clintons in South Carolina.

Then his strategy was meticulous organization - and you saw that in Iowa, as well as Tuesday's caucus states. Everything he told me has been followed through. And the attention to detail - from the Alaska caucus to the Nevada cooks - has been striking.

Now consider the psychological and emotional challenges of this campaign. It has been brutal. It has included many highly emotional moments - and occasions when racism and sexism and all sorts of hot-button issues have emerged. Then there was the extraordinary spectacle of a former President and spouse bringing the full weight of the Democratic establishment and the full prestige of two terms in the White House to dismiss some of Obama's arguments as a "fairy tale" and dismiss him as another Jesse Jackson.

How did the candidates deal with this? The vastly more experienced and nerves-of-steel Clinton clearly went through some wild mood swings. Obama gave an appearance at least of preternatural coolness under fire, a steady message that others came to mimic, and a level of oratory that still stuns this longtime debater.

In the middle of this very hot zone, he exhibited, and continues to exhibit, a coolness and steeliness that is a mark of presidential timber. He played tough - but he didn't play nasty. Keeping the high road in a contest like this, without ever playing the race card or the victim card, is an achievement.

Building a movement on top of that is more impressive still. So far, he has combined Mitt Romney's money with Clinton's organizational skills and Ron Paul's grass-roots enthusiasm.

No other campaign has brought so many dimensions into play.

And, lest we forget: He won Missouri.

Sullivan is author of the book "The Conservative Soul." A version of this Op-Ed ran on his blog, andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com.

Original here

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