Obama, In Iraq, Continues War Zone Trip The stakes for the Democratic presidential candidate's Mideast trip are unbelievably high, says Jim VandeHei of Politico.com.
NPR logo

Obama, In Iraq, Continues War Zone Trip

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92728414/92728405" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Obama, In Iraq, Continues War Zone Trip

Obama, In Iraq, Continues War Zone Trip

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92728414/92728405" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The two presidential candidates - presumptive presidential candidates, we should say - differ in obvious ways, policies, style, and this weekend, in their desire for press attention. On the one hand, the young, Midwestern senator, making a trip and inviting Katie, Charlie, and Brian along. That would be Couric, Gibson and Williams, the evening news anchors. And on the other hand, the older, Southwestern senator, booting a high-profile advisor on a Friday night in the summer, after all the political journalists have left D.C. for the Maryland shore.

But the folks at Politico.com never rest, which is why we have had the great pleasure, since the piloting phase of this program, to work with them. Joining us one last time is Jim VandeHei, the executive editor of politico.com. Hi, Jim.

Mr. JIM VANDEHEI (Executive Editor, Politico.com): It's a weepy Jim VandeHei.

STEWART: Aw, thanks. Well...

Mr. VANDEHEI: There is actually talk that they're going to suspend the campaign in protest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Keep that talk up. Keep that talk up. Hey, Senator Obama, he's out on what I've been calling just basically a fieldtrip. On Thursday, he's going to go to Berlin to meet with Angela Merkel, the chancellor. Obama is going to meet with Ehud Olmert in Israel. That the two big meetings that really could have some sort of impact on his campaign are with President Karzai in Afghanistan and Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki. Now, can you lay out the pros of these two meetings for him, and then how he might misstep?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Well, the stakes of this trip are unbelievably huge. I mean, the fact that sort of - a foreign trip in the summer when most people aren't even paying attention to the campaign means this much, I think, says so much about Barack Obama. I think, in his mind, he can really close the deal with Independent voters, and even a lot of Republicans, if he can just prove that he can be strong on the national stage, that he understands foreign policy, and that he doesn't carry the baggage that a lot of voters feel some Democrats do when it comes to national security and fighting terrorism.

If he can go into all of these meetings, look like a statesman, not do anything to sort of embarrass himself or the campaign, and show that he can think pretty smartly and sophisticated about international issues, this will be a huge triumph for him. I really do think that. The McCain campaign certainly fears that. Now, the danger is, is that he goes too far, and that this starts to look like a taxpayer-funded fieldtrip, like you called it, or just a...

STEWART: Photo-op.

Mr. VANDEHEI: PR stunt on his part.


Mr. VANDEHEI: I think so far, that hasn't happened, but man, every single camera from the United States overseas is trained on this guy for five days. So, everything he does is going to be amplified, for better or worse.

STEWART: Could he have made this trip in a press blackout, do you think?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Oh, I don't know. I mean, in some ways, he was forced, I think, to do this, and maybe the McCain campaign will come back to regret this. Remember, it was the McCain campaign and Lindsey Graham that put so much pressure on him saying, hey, he's never been to Iraq. He's got a - you know, how can he sit here and make these proclamations about the conditions on the ground when he doesn't go there?

Well, he called their bluff, and now he's going there. And he doesn't have a press contingent with him in Iraq, but obviously knows that he's going to get a heck of a lot of coverage for it. But you know, this is a candidate who spends much more time than most candidates sort of thinking about the words that he uses in speeches and the stagecraft which he's presented. And I think that my guess is they put a lot, a lot of smart thought into making sure that each and every stop he gets maximum PR pop.

STEWART: Now, he's on the trip with Jack Reed from Rhode Island, and Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, and in the VP-pick parlor game, Hagel is a name that's floated as an Obama running mate. Is that just kind of one of those for-fun, dream-ticket things? Or is there any veracity to this happening?

Mr. VANDEHEI: No, I don't think that - I don't think that's a serious chance...

STEWART: It's just fun?

Mr. VANDEHEI: Of him getting the ticket. What Obama wants is just someone who's not going to be a distraction and somebody who he feels really could be president if he were, you know, God forbid, something happened to him, and he couldn't serve in office. So, I think he'll probably go with a safer pick, like, either somebody who has some national-security experience, who is not that controversial, maybe like an Evan Bayh from Indiana, maybe Jack Reed, who's already said he doesn't want the job, but of course, would take it if offered. Or you know, someone who can really help him in a key state. I still think that Governor Kaine here in Virginia is, in some people's minds, like, the ideal pick, because he really could help deliver a key state to Obama. And if Obama can win Virginia, he probably can win the election.

STEWART: So, crossing over of party lines, for example, Joe Lieberman has been floated as the Independent-slash-Democratic answer to Chuck Hagel. Would Joe Lieberman ever be on a McCain ticket? Or again, is this just parlor games of, wow, wouldn't it be cool if people crossed party lines?

Mr. VANDEHEI: I think there's a more realistic chance that you'd see Lieberman on a McCain ticket than Hagel on an Obama ticket, mostly because the chemistry between the two men is crystal clear. I mean, this is one of the most aggressive advocates for John McCain, is Joe Lieberman. It's been someone who's been vetted. It's someone who's been through the process. It's someone who probably helps him, certainly, on the national-security front in dealing with Middle East issues. The problem is, it would obviously turn off a lot of Republicans and amplify fears they already have about McCain, about whether he's squishy and whether he's truly, quote, unquote, "one of them."

There seems to be a lot, a lot of talk around McCain about Romney, and even the potential that this happens sooner rather than later. Romney, what he would bring to the ticket, you know, a forceful advocate of McCain, somebody who's well-versed on the economy and someone who can raise a tremendous amount of money. The downside is I don't think the two men like each other. They certainly didn't during the campaign, and there's no evidence to suggest that they've some sort of healing session since.

STEWART: We're talking to Jim VandeHei, executive editor of Politico.com. Now, John McCain's campaign, they took a play from the Bill Clinton handbook on burying a story. Friday afternoon, his chief economic advisor, Phil Gramm, stepped down. He of the mental-recession comment, we're all whiners for saying things are going badly. Now, was this a smart move for McCain? Did Gramm just have too much baggage going on? Aside from his comments, some other, you know, you've read the blogs. I mean, the other issues associated with Mr. Gramm?

Mr. VANDEHEI: I think Gramm certainly was becoming a huge distraction, and I think it was really captured when he made those comments about the nation being a nation of whiners when it comes to the economy. That's certainly not the image that McCain wants to project. McCain's trying very hard to show that he's sympathetic and empathetic with the struggles that many Americans are going through. The economy is such a weak spot right now for John McCain. He's got to figure out a way to articulate an economic vision that resonates with Americans. In 2000, it was fine to say, hey, I'm just going to cut pork-barrel spending. You know, people were very concerned about sky-high government spending, especially wasteful spending. And it did have some resonance.

It doesn't resonate as well anymore because people are struggling. People are losing jobs. You see the unemployment rate tick up slowly. People are having a hard time making enough money to keep up with the surge in prices, particularly with gasoline. And he's got to figure out a way to come up with an economic theory that really is broadly appealing. And I think that when he's, you know, not able to articulate that and then also having to defend himself against the ties that people like Phil Gramm and his campaign have to, you know, companies that have had troubles or comments that are certainly explosive, that only amplifies his troubles.

STEWART: Barack Obama doing a little distancing himself. The campaign disinvited former Georgia senator and current registered lobbyist, Max Cleland, from an Atlanta fundraising event back on July 8th. Now, is this a meaningful gesture, a technicality, and frankly, couldn't it get lonely at these events if you're going to keep anybody attached to a lobbying firm out?

Mr. VANDEHEI: It really is. I mean, basically, everybody - most people who've left politics go into the lobbying world, and it really creates a pretty high standard that Obama's going to be forced to meet at each and every step. When you're saying you're not going to have a lobbyist here or a lobbyist there, reporters are going to simply look to make sure that you're being true to that principle at each and every step, you know. Now, he's sort of holding himself to that standard. I think that's probably a good thing. The question will be, if he were to win the election, he's talked about, you know, having limits on the number of lobbyists in government. It sounds all well and good, but a lot of people who are well-versed in policy and how government operates actually are lobbyists and aren't necessarily criminals.

STEWART: There could be some tumbleweeds down halls if he keeps that up. Jim, before we let you go, first of all, we want to thank you for joining us on these Mondays for almost the better part of a year. We really appreciate it. Your analysis has been great. Your love of the Packers we admire. And as we leave our audience, and this is your last appearance on our show, I want you to tell our audience one thing you think that they really should keep in mind over the next 106 days until the election, so they really can make an informed choice.

Mr. VANDEHEI: Well, first off, it's been a pleasure. I really do love doing this show. You guys are a lot of fun, and we always have enough time to actually talk pretty seriously, I think, about issues that do matter a lot. And I think the thing I'd really look for - because I do think this election is Barack Obama's to lose, just because of the political environment right now. The thing is, is to really look closely at Obama and try to figure out, like, what really motivates this guy? What are the ideas that he truly believes in? It's clear he's a very - a great speech giver. He's clearly a very good strategizer. It's not crystal clear to me, like, what are the core values that undoubtedly would, sort of, echo through an Obama administration and how that would be reflected in policies that he sort of really believes in?

At this point in the campaign in 2000, you sort of knew, if George Bush won, in the first year, he's going to do something on education. He's going to do something on faith-based initiatives, and he's going to cut taxes. It's still not crystal clear to me what the first year of an Obama administration would look like. And that always gives you a pretty good indication of what would animate a candidate once he is elected to office. I think that's an important thing to look for.

And then, on the McCain side, is to figure out, does he really have any passion for issues beyond national security? It's clear that that's what motivates this man. He cares a lot about honor. He cares a lot about ideals, but I think the next president is going to have a lot on their hands, not just having to deal with Afghanistan and Iraq, but dealing with the fallout of the mortgage crisis, probably an economy that will still be in turmoil. We need to figure out what is it that this guy actually truly believes in on the economic side, and how would that be reflected in policies.

STEWART: Jim VandeHei, cofounder and executive editor of Politico.com and trusted friend of the Bryant Park Project. Thanks, Jim.

Mr. VANDEHEI: All right. Good luck to all of you. Take care. Bye-bye.

STEWART: Next up on the BPP, sports with the best sports guy in the whole world, in my opinion, and it might be a little jaded, or tainted, I should say, because he is my husband. That is Bill Wolff, the BPP sports analyst. This is Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.