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The Smart-aleck Vs. The Statesman

The New York Times yesterday published a piece on Barack Obama's increasing "cockiness" on the campaign trail now that he has all but sewn up the Democratic nomination. Obama has certainly had a charmed career, due largely to a string of incompenent opponents that made his winning a U.S. Senate seat rather easy. His meteoric rise and fawning press coverage has endowed him with an arrogance which is becoming all too apparent. Up until recently, for instance, Obama had been referring to John McCain's "half-century of service" to his country, the sort of wise-acre crack one would expect from a high school show-off.

Perhaps Obama feels he can act this way because he's still in the Democratic primary, where cheap shots at his opponent's age win laughter and applause. But maybe his strategists believe that focusing on McCain's age will work in the general as part of their "change" narrative. This tactic is a double-edged sword, however, as hinting that McCain is too old (and all that being "too old" implies: his war record, his decades in Congress, the voluminous legislation he has passed, etc.) opens up Obama to the obvious criticism that he is too young. Once Obama is on stage across from McCain, this haughtiness will immediately become off-putting. I predict a replay of the famous 1984 presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. Pitted against an enormously popular president, Democrats decided to attack Reagan for being too old -- he was 73 at the time, two years older than McCain is today. Reagan rebuffed those efforts by reassuring his audience that, "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." John McCain has a similar wit, and don't be surprised if he uses it.

--James Kirchick