Fineman falsely asserted Obama "admitt[ed] he can't manage his way out of a paper bag" during Las Vegas debate

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

Newsweek chief political correspondent Howard Fineman falsely claimed during MSNBC's coverage following the January 15 Democratic presidential candidates debate in Las Vegas that Sen. Barack Obama "admitt[ed] that he can't manage his way out of a paper bag while he's running for president of the United States."

During MSNBC's coverage following the January 15 Democratic presidential candidates debate in Las Vegas, Newsweek chief political correspondent Howard Fineman asserted, "What saves [Sen. Barack] Obama [D-IL] is that he's such a likable guy that even when he's admitting that he can't manage his way out of a paper bag while he's running for president of the United States, everybody likes him." In fact, while Obama did discuss a statement he made that appeared in a January 14 Reno Gazette-Journal article in which he said that he is "not an operating officer," he did not "admit[]" during the debate that he "can't manage his way out of a paper bag."

Citing the quote in the Gazette-Journal article, NBC's Meet the Press host Tim Russert asked Obama, "Do the American people want someone in the Oval Office who is an operating officer?" Obama replied, "Well, I think what I was describing was how I view the presidency." He continued:

OBAMA: Now, being president is not making sure that schedules are being run properly or the paperwork is being shuffled effectively. It involves having a vision for where the country needs to go. It involves having the capacity to bring together the best people and being able to spark the kind of debate about how we're going to solve health care; how we're going to solve energy; how we are going to deliver good jobs and good wages; how we're going to keep people in their homes, here in Nevada; and then being able to mobilize and inspire the American people to get behind that agenda for change. That's the kind of leadership that I've shown in the past. That's the kind of leadership that I intend to show as president of the United States.

Later in the debate, when Russert asked the candidates about their "greatest strength" and "greatest weakness," Obama said, "My greatest strength, I think, is the ability to bring people together from different perspectives, to get them to recognize what they have in common and to move people in a different direction. And as I indicated before, my greatest weakness, I think, is when it comes to -- I'll give you a very good example. I ask my staff never to hand me paper until two seconds before I need it because I will lose it." He added, "I need to have good people in place who can make sure that systems run. That's what I've always done, and that's why we've run not only a good campaign, but a good U.S. Senate office. "

In the Gazette-Journal article, Obama is quoted as saying: "But I'm not an operating officer. Some in this debate around experience seem to think the job of the president is to go in and run some bureaucracy. Well, that's not my job. My job is to set a vision of 'here's where the bureaucracy needs to go.' " The article began by stating that Obama "freely admits he doesn't have the experience to run a bureaucracy," but did not actually quote Obama admitting he lacks the "experience to run a bureaucracy." Similarly, Obama did not admit during the debate that he "can't manage his way out of a paper bag."

Earlier in the day, on MSNBC Live, anchor Kevin Corke apparently referenced the Gazette-Journal article in falsely claiming that "Barack Obama said he doesn't have the, quote, 'experience to run a bureaucracy.' "

From the 12 a.m. ET hour of MSNBC's January 16 post-debate coverage:

MATTHEWS: Well, before "Kumbaya" becomes the theme here, I want to ask Howard why on God's earth would the two candidates who are not doing so well right this moment -- and it changes moment to moment -- Barack Obama and John Edwards, why would they agree to a cease-fire, as you put it, a status quo ante Philadelphia? Why would you accept going back to the period in which Hillary owned this nomination? Howard Fineman.

FINEMAN: Well, part of the problem is that if Obama and Edwards both do that, it redounds to Hillary's benefit. That's what happened in New Hampshire. They can't --

MATTHEWS: Right, right, bull's-eye, 99 percent of the truth. But then why are they doing it?

FINEMAN: Well, they can't both do it. What they'd like to happen, Obama and Edwards would both like the other guy to be the one attacking Hillary. And because they both shied away from it tonight, Hillary could do all those beautiful maneuvers that she did, including getting Obama to agree to co-sponsor a piece of legislation. That was a brilliant little tactical maneuver. Hillary won this on debating points, debating points tonight and tactical maneuvers. What saves Obama is that he's such a likable guy that even when he's admitting that he can't manage his way out of a paper bag while he's running for president of the United States, everybody likes him. I mean, it's just remarkable. It's just amazing.

From the January 15 Democratic presidential candidates debate:

RUSSERT: Senator Obama, you gave an interview to the Reno Gazette-Journal and you said, "We all have strengths and weaknesses." You said one of your weaknesses is, quote, "I'm not an operating officer." Do the American people want someone in the Oval Office who is an operating officer?

OBAMA: Well, I think what I was describing was how I view the presidency.

Now, being president is not making sure that schedules are being run properly or the paperwork is being shuffled effectively. It involves having a vision for where the country needs to go. It involves having the capacity to bring together the best people and being able to spark the kind of debate about how we're going to solve health care; how we're going to solve energy; how we are going to deliver good jobs and good wages; how we're going to keep people in their homes, here in Nevada; and then being able to mobilize and inspire the American people to get behind that agenda for change.

That's the kind of leadership that I've shown in the past. That's the kind of leadership that I intend to show as president of the United States. And so what's needed is sound judgment; a vision for the future; the capacity to tap into the hopes and dreams of the American people and mobilize them to push aside those special interests, and lobbyists, and forces that are standing in the way of real change; and making sure that you have a government that reflects the decency and the generosity of the American people. That's the kind of leadership that I believe I can provide.

RUSSERT: You said each of you have strengths and weaknesses. I want to ask each of you quickly: your greatest strength, your greatest weakness?

OBAMA: My greatest strength, I think, is the ability to bring people together from different perspectives, to get them to recognize what they have in common and to move people in a different direction.

And as I indicated before, my greatest weakness, I think, is when it comes to -- I'll give you a very good example. I ask my staff never to hand me paper until two seconds before I need it because I will lose it. You know, the -- you know --

[laughter]

OBAMA: -- and my desk and my office doesn't look good. I've got to have somebody around me who is keeping track of that stuff. And that's not trivial; I need to have good people in place who can make sure that systems run. That's what I've always done, and that's why we've run not only a good campaign, but a good U.S. Senate office.

RUSSERT: Senator Edwards, greatest strength, greatest weakness?

EDWARDS: I think my greatest strength is that for 54 years, I've been fighting with every fiber of my being. In the beginning, the fight was for me. Growing up in mill towns and mill villages, I had to literally fight to survive.

But then I spent 20 years in courtrooms fighting for children and families against really powerful, well-financed interests. I learned from that experience, by the way, that if you're tough enough, and you're strong enough, and you got the guts, and you're smart enough, you can win. That's a fight that can be won. It can be won in Washington, too, by the way. And I've continued that fight my entire time in public life.

So I've got what it takes inside to fight on behalf of the American people and on behalf of the middle class.

I think weakness, I sometimes have a very powerful emotional response to pain that I see around me. When I see a man like Donnie Ingram, who I met a few months ago in South Carolina, who worked for 33 years in the mill, reminded me very much of the kind of people that I grew up with, who's about to lose his job, has no idea where he's going to go, what he's going to do.

I mean, his dignity and self-respect is at issue. And I feel that in a really personal way and in a very emotional way. And I think sometimes that can undermine what you need to do.

RUSSERT: Senator Clinton?

CLINTON: Well, I am passionately committed to this country and what it stands for. I'm a product of the changes that have already occurred, and I want to be an instrument for making those changes alive and real in the lives of Americans, particularly children.

That's what I've done for 35 years. It is really my life's work. It is something that comes out of my own experience, both in my family and in my church that, you know, I've been blessed. And I think to whom much is given, much is expected.

So I have tried to create opportunities, both on an individual basis -- intervening to help people who have nowhere else to turn, to be their champion -- and then to make those changes. And I think I can deliver change. I think I understand how to make it possible for more people to live up to their God-given potential.

I get impatient. I get, you know, really frustrated when people don't seem to understand that we can do so much more to help each other. And sometimes I come across that way. I admit that. I get very concerned about, you know, pushing further and faster than perhaps people are ready to go.

But I think that, you know, there is a difference here. You know, I do think that being president is the chief executive officer. And I respect what Barack said about setting the vision, setting the tone, bringing people together. But I think you have to be able to manage and run the bureaucracy. You've got to pick good people, certainly, but you have to hold them accountable every single day.

We've seen the results of a president who, frankly, failed at that. You know, he went in to office saying he was going to have the kind of Harvard Business School, CEO model, where he'd set the tone, he'd set the goals, and then everybody else would have to implement it.

And we saw the failures. We saw the failures along the Gulf Coast with, you know, people who were totally incompetent and insensitive, failing to help our fellow Americans. We've seen the failures with holding the administration accountable with the no-bid contracts and the cronyism.

So I do think you have to do both. It's a really hard job, and in America we put, you know, the head of state and the head of government together in one person. But I think you've got to set the tone, you've got to set the vision, you've got to set the goals, you've got to bring the country together. And then you do have to manage and operate and hold that bureaucracy accountable to get the results you're trying to achieve.

RUSSERT: Senator Obama, Senator Clinton invoked your name. I'll give you a chance to respond.

OBAMA: Well, I -- there's no doubt that you've got to be a good manager, and that's not what I was arguing.

The point, in terms of bringing together a team, is that you get the best people and you're able to execute and hold them accountable. But I think that there's something, if we're going to evaluate George Bush and his failures as president, that I think are much more important. He was very efficient. He was on time all the time and, you know, had [laughter] -- you know, I'm sure he never lost a paper. I'm sure he knows where it is.

[laughter]

OBAMA: What -- what -- what he -- what he could not do -- what he could not do is to listen to perspectives that didn't agree with his ideological predispositions. What he could not do is to bring in different people with different perspectives and get them to work together. What he could not do is to manage the effort to make sure that the American people understood that if we're going to go into war, that there are going to be consequences and there are going to be costs.

And we have to be able to communicate what those costs are and to make absolutely certain that if we're going to make a decision to send our young men and women into harm's way, that it's based on the best intelligence and that we've asked tough questions before we went in to fight.

I mean, those are the kinds of failures that have to do with judgment, they have to do with vision, the capacity to inspire people. They don't have to do with whether or not he was managing the bureaucracy properly. That's not to deny that there has to be strong management skills in the presidency. It is to say that what has been missing is the ability to bring people together, to mobilize the country to move us in a better direction, and to be straight with the American people. That's how you get the American people involved.

From the January 14 Reno Gazette-Journal article:

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama freely admits he doesn't have the experience to run a bureaucracy.

But he's banking on the fact voters aren't looking for a "chief operating officer" in this election.

"I have a pretty good sense of my strengths and my weaknesses," he said today during a meeting with the Reno Gazette-Journal editorial board.

"I am very good at teasing out from people who are smarter than me what the issues are and how we resolve them," he said. "I don't think there is anybody in this race who can inspire the American people better than I can. And I don't think there is anybody in this race who can bridge differences ... better than I can.

"But I'm not an operating officer. Some in this debate around experience seem to think the job of the president is to go in and run some bureaucracy. Well, that's not my job. My job is to set a vision of 'here's where the bureaucracy needs to go.' "

Posted In
Elections, Government
Network/Outlet
MSNBC
Person
Howard Fineman
Stories/Interests
Barack Obama, 2008 Elections
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