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Balance

What keeps me confident in my support for Barack Obama, more than anything, is his grace under fire. With rare exceptions, he retains a poise in the face of attack unlike any I've seen from a politician in years, unlike any I've seen from a Democrat in my adult life. His supporters do not always show such grace—we can be quite snotty, in fact—but his example keeps lifting us up. The equanimity he shows in the face of Senator's Clinton's scattershot assaults, and the respect he continues to show the Senator herself, give me the courage to keep my own intellectual balance. Twice I've posted rants here that veered toward the snide and dismissive, and both times I've deleted them after thinking about them in the larger picture of the campaign.

Now, faced with the prospect of a quick end to the nomination battle—or a long, dismal grind to the Pennsylvania primary seven weeks away—I sense the candidate's balance tipping a little. The outrage he and his staff expressed over the Somali-turban picture on the Drudge Report was out of proportion to its object. First, we can't trust Matt Drudge to tell the truth about the picture being circulated by Clinton staffers. Second, the fact that unnamed staffers (how low in the organization?) and circulating it (to each other for personal amusement?) doesn't damn the Clinton campaign. And third, interpreting the photo as offensive makes it seem far more so than it has to be, and, as Clinton's campaign chief noted, is somewhat offensive in itself.

In the escalating arguments over NAFTA and health care, the Obama campaign has flirted with disingenuousness. It's smart and appropriate to point out how Clinton keeps claiming never to have supported NAFTA when she clearly did; but Obama himself has never been a hard-line opponent of it, and his Clinton's current positions—that its implementation should be adjusted but the agreement will stand—are not so different. And although it's important to point out that Clinton's health-care plan is mandatory and involves docking worker's wages, to claim that she will make people pay for insurance who literally can't afford it is blurring the edges of truth. Obama's strength does not derive from blurring the edges of truth. It derives from the perception that he can face and speak the truth, and that he can keep his poise even in the face of his opponents' distortions.

Obama's responses to the Clinton campaign's accusations of plagiarism and debatophobia in the days before the Wisconsin primaries were supremely, reassuringly cool: the charges were "no big deal" and "silly" and "not very important to the voters." He needs to find that balance again now and keep it in the face of what is likely to be Senator Clinton's final weeks of assaults. There's a long way to go yet: Eight more months of keeping his balance against what will surely be ferocious Republican challenges. He needs to keep his feet and give his supporters the courage to keep ours.