What makes Barack Obama such a political genius is his fluid ability to switch gears. In addition to arousing hope through inspirational speeches, he could immediately switch gears and stand toe-to-toe with Hillary Clinton in a debate. His performance in the debates reassured America that he wasn’t all-talk with no substance; he understood the issues as thoroughly as Hillary and could even put her on the defensive. Furthermore, Obama’s debate performances increase dramatically as the election progressed. By the time he was competing against John McCain, I personally thought he was completely dominant in the fall debates, with McCain consistently on the defensive.
In this particular exchange at the South Carolina primary debates, Hillary Clinton tries to muddle Obama’s integrity by questioning his past remarks about Republicans. Barack Obama then brings Hillary’s accusation down to a conversation over whether it was a “Republican” idea or “Ronald Reagan’s” idea and whether he truly stated it was a bad idea or just an idea. In bringing the accusation down to this level of specifics, Obama persuaded me that the accusation lacked real substance and was really an attempt to distort Obama’s words.
Obama then scores a big win with the Bill Clinton exchange. He starts by forcing Hillary to mention that a remark wasn’t hers but was from her husband. He then immediately responds with “Well sometimes I’m not sure who I’m running against.” This remark is extremely powerful because it cuts right to the heart of the political shadiness of having a former president campaign on your behalf. Its delivery also makes it very powerful; saying it immediately, without hesitation, it sounds completely genuine. The comment seemed to strike a chord with the American people. Hillary’s responds here by saying that we both have strong spouses who back each other up. This argument completely fails since it’s obvious that Bill Clinton has much more power than Michelle Obama, and he is campaigning for Hillary on a much greater scale than is Michelle. Hillary sounds very political here and on the defensive.
In muddling Hillary’s accusation and putting her on the defensive about her husband, Obama successfully makes the case that the Clintons are engaging in politics as usual and he is able to take the higher ground on substance. Obama wins this exchange.