Obama Fails a “Test of Character”

Professor Samantha Power

There is rarely a shortage of things to get depressed about in American politics, but today I feel especially low. Samantha Power, who had been an advisor to Barak Obama on foreign policy issues, resigned from his campaign following a remark to a journalist that Hillary Clinton is “a monster,” referring to the Clinton campaign’s incessant smears of Obama. Professor Power is one of the bright young voices of foreign policy, and her work has focused on the ethical dimension of foreign interventions. Her book, Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize. To see her depart from the Obama camp, over something so stupid, is disheartening.

When her remark was published, the Clinton campaign immediately called for Professor Power’s head. They were shocked (SHOCKED!) and outraged (OUTRAGED!) at such callous name calling. Ms. Clinton’s surrogates demanded that Mr. Obama sack her. The outcry of Representative Nita Lowey of New York was typical: “We’re here today to ask Senator Obama to ask Samantha Power not to be part of his campaign. It’s really a test for Obama, a test of character.”

It was indeed a test of character; and Mr. Obama failed it. He accepted Professor Power’s resignation, giving credibility to the foolishness of the feigned insult and losing an amazing advisor in the process.

This whole episode is so incredibly stupid. If “monster” is the worst thing Ms. Clinton is ever called by her political opponents, she should thank her lucky stars. The sanctimonious reaction from her campaign was so completely out of proportion with the remark as to be absurd, displaying a remarkably thin-skin from someone who tells us that she should be the Democratic nominee because she will be better able to withstand the withering general election attacks for which the Republicans are justly infamous.

Ms. Power’s remark was also – dare we say – accurate. Ms. Clinton is a political monster straight from 2007 Hollywood central casting: she is the ultimate Transformer. Craving only power, she is a machine who will say, do, or vote for anything that is calculated to bring her the presidency. If Bill Clinton was the prime example of a politician who believed in absolutely nothing but what the polls told him to believe, then Hillary Clinton is a case of the student surpassing the teacher.

Ms. Power was very quick to issue apologies to both Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama, about the “monster” remark. “It is wrong for anyone to pursue this campaign in such negative and personal terms,” she said. “I apologize to Senator Clinton and to Senator Obama, who has made very clear that these kinds of expressions should have no place in American politics.” She later added:

Of course I regret [the words]. I can’t even believe they came out of my mouth. The campaign was getting very tense, and I — in every public appearance I’ve ever made talking about Senator Clinton, I have sung her praises as the leader she’s been, the intellect. She’s also incredibly warm, funny. I’ve spent time with her. I think that I just had a very weak moment in seeing some of the tactics, it seems, that were getting employed. I was just afraid really that the campaign would not stay at the level it had been on and I let out in a wave of frustration.

These are not the pro forma apologies we tend to see in politics; they display thoughtful, specific, contrition. Mr. Obama should have had the moral courage to stand up to the Clinton campaign and the judgment to see that the faux-grievance was far more malicious and strategic than Professor Power’s innocuous characterization.

If Mr. Obama winds up losing the primary campaign to Ms. Clinton, it will be precisely because he has failed to prove that he embodies the new leadership paradigm he trumpets. In this case, he has done the politically expedient thing, rather than doing the right thing. This is hardly “Change You Can Believe In.”

5 Responses to “Obama Fails a “Test of Character””

  1. 1 smita 8 March 2008 at 4:47 pm

    I hate to depress you further, but you and David Brooks are in perfect accord on this point. He was on the News Hour saying that Obama should not have fired her.

    (Maybe Barak does have a special talent for bringing people together?)

  2. 2 USpace 8 March 2008 at 10:20 pm

    Firing Powers was a mistake, Obama has shown himself to be subservient to the PIAPS.
    Great post. Obama’s aide was right. Hillary is a monster. Of course not the same kind of monster as Hitler, Mao or Stalin, but a monster nonetheless.
    absurd thought –
    God of the Universe says
    don’t call monsters monsters

    never expose their evil
    never upset a monster

    absurd thought –
    God of the Universe says
    claim to care for people

    call yourself progressive
    your policies hurt poor folk

    absurd thought –
    God of the Universe says
    elect women presidents

    who cover for their husbands
    who rape other women

    if you’re MAD
    punish your country
    VOTE for Hillary


    Go here and watch ‘The Hillary Show’ with Howard Dean. It’s Hillarious!




  3. 3 Mona Jamison 10 March 2008 at 6:00 pm

    Powers should not have resigned. He should have demanded she stay after she issued the apology. By the way, shouldn’t Clinton reject support from Spitzer??

  4. 4 smita 22 March 2008 at 8:13 am


    Do you think Barack redeemed himself by standing by Rev. Wright? The right wing media talking heads are not pacified.

    But I think this was a bigger test of character than the Samantha Power situation: An adviser who gets possessed by spirits that force her to say things she would never have dreamed of thinking, leave alone uttering, can be a bit of a liability to a political campaign. And her stepping down now doesn’t preclude her advising him in the future.

    Rev. Wright is a different matter. He clearly knew and meant what he was saying but the clips of his speeches, as they have been circulating, do little for a weary country looking for something to feel good about. (NPR has an interesting piece about Black Liberation Theology, which provides better context for those comments: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88512189 )

    I thought Barack passed this test.

    p.s. As for Clinton’s thin-skinnedness, it’s part of the political game to bring down as many of your opponent’s advisers as possible. The Obama team jumped with alacrity at the opportunity to demand Geraldine Ferraro’s head. Perhaps that’s the solution for the Florida and Michigan delegate conundrum. Let’s get both sides’ supporters in each state into a large stadium and and arm them with paintball guns. After an hour, they can count how many people in each side remain and apportion the delegates accordingly. It would be cheaper and probably just as fair.

  5. 5 mbjesq 22 March 2008 at 2:26 pm


    Barak Obama’s Philadelphia address on race in America not only passed the test of character, it set a new standard for candor, nuance, clear-headed analysis, and moral authority for an American politician. It was a speech in which, for the first time in my memory, a politician with everything at stake dared to be smart rather than wedding themselves to our lowest common denominator, faced-up to the complexity of an issue rather than reducing it to simplistic sound-bites, challenged Americans rather than sucking up to us. In short, he treated us with astonishing respect.

    In the process, he delivered one of the most important political speeches of my lifetime. Sure, it lacked the consistency of rhetorical excellence of, say, Mario Cuomo’s Democratic Convention keynote, or even a half-dozen of other outstanding speeches Mr. Obama himself has given, including his own Democratic Convention address. But it was and awesomely inspirational exhortation for us to extinguish the pernicious, smoldering embers of intolerance and inter-racial resentment, and the most moving call to social action since Martin Luther King asked us to share his dream of an end to overt bigotry and segregation.

    In endorsing Mr. Obama today, Bill Richardson called him “a courageous, thoughtful and inspiring leader.” I couldn’t agree more.


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