Nothing describes Barack Obama better than the cliche about a man facing good news/bad news. The good news for Obama is that he is getting a first-rate education on what it means to be commander in chief. The bad news - his teacher is John McCain.
Even before he clinches the nomination, a flurry of McCain attacks over Iran, Iraq, Cuba and military leadership has exposed Obama's soft underbelly on national security. The effective barrage is a testament to how the primary battles never tested the rookie Democrat on whether he is ready to be commander in chief.
In Prof. McCain's class, Obama is slowly making progress, but remains far below grade average. It's not certain he can catch up by November's final exam, where the threshold issue is the public's confidence a candidate can and will defend America. Perceived weakness is a disqualifier.
The problem for Obama, beyond his lack of experience, is that his instincts are those of the Perfect Liberal by way of Harvard Law School. Like Bill Clinton's clumsy attempts to salute when he first won the Oval Office, Obama exhibits discomfort about things military. He is a peacenik by gut and, as critics note, drew the wrong lessons about Cold War talks JFK and Ronald Reagan had with the Soviets.
That didn't matter during the primary battle, where Obama's early opposition to Iraq was a defining difference against Hillary Clinton. But doubts about his national security bona fides are already a handicap in the nascent general election.
McCain, showing it is never too early to shape the battlefield to match your strengths, has ripped into Obama on a daily basis. Truth be told, Obama has presented him with a target-rich environment.
The first opening surfaced in a July 2007 debate, when Obama was asked if he would, without preconditions, meet in the first year of his administration with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. Obama promptly and famously said, "I would."
Less noticed were his concluding words, which reflected a profoundly wrong view of the Mideast: "We need to talk to Iran and Syria because they're going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses," he added. "They have been acting irresponsibly up until this point. But if we tell them that we are not going to be a permanent occupying force, we are in a position to say that they are going to have to carry some weight, in terms of stabilizing the region."
The suggestion that we are the bad guys while Iran and Syria could be helpful is beyond goofy and would alarm our Sunni Arab allies. Yet the assumption is key to Obama's withdrawal plan.
Even as Obama scales back on his promise of unconditional meetings with Iranian madman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Raul Castro, McCain has added two wrinkles. He scolded Obama for not meeting with our top Iraq commander, Gen. David Petraeus. And, noting Obama has not been to Iraq in two years, McCain suggested they go together.
Obama rejected the joint trip, but with John Kerry acknowledging his fellow Democrat should go to Iraq, Obama has little choice. But that won't be the end of McCain's advantage. By meeting our troops and commanders, Obama will be confronted with the fact that the surge of troops he opposed has made Iraq safer. What then?
Obama also should fix another mistake. Asked by Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" about evidence the U.S. had gathered on Iran's role in Iraq, Obama said "I want to ... take a look at the kind of evidence that the administration is putting forward" and mentioned Iran's "potential funding of militias inside of Iraq."
Both phrases suggest he's not convinced Iran is providing training and munitions to militias killing our troops. Yet instead of seeking a Pentagon briefing on the facts, his first instinct is doubt.
There's more. When New York Times columnist David Brooks questioned Obama about Hezbollah's miniwar with our ally, the government of Lebanon, Obama said we must make sure "the disaffected have an effective outlet for their grievances, which assures them they are getting social services." He also said Hezbollah and Hamas must realize violence "weakens their legitimate claims."
Obama has yet to define those "grievances" and "legitimate claims." Perhaps Prof. McCain can ask him to on the next quiz.