There is a sense of urgency at Sen. Barack Obama's headquarters in a steel-and-glass office tower in downtown Chicago. The Iowa caucuses, a must win, are eight weeks away. The atmosphere is collegiate and familial—but all business. And it had better be. Way down in the national polls, Obama does not have much time to change the dynamics of the race. Last week, his wife, Michelle, spent a long day in a conference room, calling Iowans one at a time for long chats. She talked about faith issues with a woman in Blackhawk County for 17 minutes, and smiled at what she concluded was a sale made. In an office around the corner, the senator sat with NEWSWEEK's Howard Fineman and Richard Wolffe, amping up his new willingness to criticize Democratic front runner Sen. Hillary Clinton. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Hillary's team says she was ganged up on by men in last week's debate. Does she get or deserve special treatment because she is a woman?
OBAMA: I don't think that Senator Clinton would ever suggest that she should be treated differently because she's a woman. And I actually thought that everybody was very courteous in their disagreements with her. We had a debate in Iowa which George Stephanopoulos presided over, and for the first 10, 15 minutes people were questioning my qualifications for the presidency. I don't remember anybody worrying too much about that … We're not running for student council president, we're running for leader of the free world.
How would you describe her response on the question of her First Lady papers?
Her response was certainly inadequate. When she suggested somehow she didn't have control over whether or not these papers were being released—what we're talking about here is her husband's presidential library. And when she is making a suggestion that part of the experience that she brings to this office is her experience as First Lady, people have a right to ask some tough questions. She can release these papers.
So is she being honest?
I think she was being disingenuous.
What's the difference between disingenuous and dishonest?
You'll have to ask her.
Is she entitled to any credit for her years as First Lady as she argues her case to be president?
On those areas where there is a record of her having done work, she certainly deserves credit for it. What she can't do is have it both ways. She can't embrace every success of Bill Clinton's presidency and distance herself from every failure of Bill Clinton's presidency.
What are the major failures of the Bill Clinton presidency?
Issues like health care. She wants to take credit for having tried but there were a lot of big mistakes in preventing us from getting health care back in 1993 … What was she involved with? Where did she participate? Where did she not participate in decision making? And that's one of the reasons why these papers that are currently in the presidential library could be helpful in sorting that out.
Was Hillary's answer on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants an example of [being transparent, which you say will be a hallmark of your administration if elected]?
Look, watch the videotape. She said that she was for the [New York Gov. Eliot] Spitzer plan and in the span of two minutes said she wasn't for the Spitzer plan. That wasn't something that was prompted by me or anybody else but it was characteristic of her answers on Social Security and her answers on the papers from the Clinton years. Look, I actually recognize that this sort of straddling is oftentimes considered politically savvy in Washington … It's been rewarded. Her ability to finesse her vote to authorize the war during the course of this campaign is something that she has been complimented for on the front page of The New York Times as being politically deft. So I understand where it arises from. The perception is that if you don't allow yourself to be pinned down, then you're making yourself a smaller target in the general election. That's the conventional wisdom. I think it is the wrong way to govern. I think it is not what we need right now.
Do you think the majority of the American public is in favor of giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants?
Absolutely not. I'm sure they aren't.
But you are in favor.
What I have said is that it is better off that we know that people who are driving know the rules of the road, are subject to insurance, are making sure that we know we can track them if they get in an accident. A lot of security experts agree with me on this issue. It's not optimal. What we need to do is make sure that we don't have undocumented workers coming into the country in the first place. But here's the more important point: people know where I stand on this and we can have a serious conversation and debate about it.
Where are you on UFOs?
I have not seen any signs of alien life forms. I leave this between [Rep.] Dennis [Kucinich] and Rudy Giuliani. I'm sure they would have very different approaches to aliens, though. Dennis is much more welcoming.
They would get driver's licenses.
They would get driver's licenses, exactly. Rudy: ready to shoot them down.