Does Barack Obama have the brass?

If he wants to be president, he's going to have to answer the question sharply posed by his Democratic rival: Is he tough enough? So far, we don't know the answer.
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Alec Baldwin in <i>Glenngary Glen Ross</i>: Have you got the brass, Barack?

If he wants to be president, he's going to have to answer the question sharply posed by his Democratic rival: Is he tough enough? So far, we don't know the answer.

In David Mamet's movie Glenngary Glen Ross, there's a scene where a completely odious character played by Alec Baldwin tells a bunch of salesmen the facts of life. "I'm here from downtown," he tells them. And all of them are fired unless they start closing deals. "It takes balls to sell real estate."

In her own way, Hillary Clinton is playing that role for Barack Obama. He couldn't close sales in Texas and Ohio and and now she's mocking him. McCain's got brass. She's got brass, she says. And Barack? Well, he once gave a nice speech and that's it.

Here's what she said:

I think you'll be able to imagine many things Sen. McCain will be able to say. He's never been the president, but he will put forth his lifetime of experience. I will put forth my lifetime of experience. Sen. Obama will put forth a speech he made in 2002.

Sputtering in anger after the recent primaries, Obama advisor Samantha Power called Clinton "a monster" who will say or do anything. Power resigned from her volunteer role, a casualty of the Clinton attack machine, now humming at full throttle.

How Clinton equates her qualifications to be commander in chief with McCain's is a puzzle – as Maureen Dowd might say, was it standing tough against Bin Laden or against Bill? But no matter, Hillary Clinton is drawing a contrast at Obama's expense.

Politics is not about fairness. It's about gaining power to do things. Obama is right about wanting to change American politics, but if he's not tough enough to stand up to Hillary Clinton's machine, he's not ready for the job. She's doing him and us a favor by testing him.

It's not a popular thing to say, but we need a measure of ruthlessness in our presidents, as well as other qualities such as wisdom, intellectual curiosity, integrity, and vision.

Clinton has that ruthless streak – it's the flip side of talk of her tenacity and strength. If there's a belief she'll stop at nothing to win the White House, that's something to put Obama on edge and to swing super-delegates. Let Obama's campaign talk about playing by the rules. You can't claim Florida! No fair! But this isn't third-grade soccer. She counts it as a victory. Let him say no to Florida voters. And while he's at it, wasn't she gracious to say he'd make a nice No. 2 on her ticket?

So as much as I like Obama, I like how Clinton is testing him. It's not sufficient for him to say he's from Chicago. Much of his childhood was spent on the beaches of Hawaii and the streets of Jakarta, Indonesia. He's got to show steel.

The comparison of Obama with John F. Kennedy is instructive. Kennedy emerged from the 1960 campaign looking youthful and elegant. He had an attractive wife and children. He gave fine speeches about generational change. But Nikita Kruschev judged him weak and untested. We got the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviets made a similar judgment about Jimmy Carter. Tanks rolled into Afghanistan.

Obama is our best hope for transforming America's standing abroad, but he must emerge from this campaign looking tough enough. Is he convincing when he says he'd launch an attack on al Qaeda inside Pakistan without approval of the Pakistani government? Put aside the wisdom of that notion. Would people believe a threat from President Obama?

Our endless, costly, crazy presidential-selection process has one undeniable benefit. It puts candidates through hell, where struggle reveals strength of character. McCain certainly showed toughness in his comeback.

Obama supporters might call Clinton mean. Or desperate. Or a shrewd candidate maneuvering for advantage. She brought the word from downtown.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.