To the Clinton campaign, the exchange highlighted Clinton's vast experience and foreign-policy know-how — and Obama's naivete. Madeleine Albright, who served as secretary of state under Clinton's husband, called Clinton's answer "perfect" — and strongly implied that Obama was wrong to not recognize the importance of the "diplomatic spade work" that is best performed by lower-level personnel, not the president.
"Having been involved in this myself, I think she showed a very sophisticated and nuanced view of what really happened, and for me, it shows the kind of experience she has," Albright said in a conference call with reporters arranged by the Clinton campaign today.
Though Obama's answer was unequivocal, Obama aides said after the debate that he never meant to suggest that he would definitely personally meet with dictators such as Kim Jong Il and Fidel Castro without first initiating in lower-level diplomacy. And they accused Clinton of contradicting herself on the subject by circulating a Clinton quote from April.
"I think it is a terrible mistake for our president to say he will not talk with bad people," Clinton said.
But Clinton aides said she had never ruled out meeting with foreign leaders who are hostile to the United States. The key distinction is that she would first want assurances that such a meeting would be likely productive, they explained.
"You can't just kind of show up and have an event," Albright said.
This is not the first time that a debate question has provoked an interesting series of exchanges involving Clinton and Obama. At the first Democratic debate, in April, the candidates were asked how they'd respond to a terrorist attack.
Obama's initial response focused on emergency management. But after Clinton said that "a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate," Obama added to his answer: "We have genuine enemies out there that have to be hunted down."