How Barack Obama has made this the most riveting presidential race in decades
LUIZA CH. SAVAGEJanuary212008
How Barack Obama has made this the most riveting presidential race in decades
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
IT’S THE DAY BEFORE the electrifying end to the closely contested New Hampshire primary, and Barack Obama, the 46-year-old first-term senator from Illinois and son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya, is in an old theatre in Lebanon, a mountain town near the Vermont border, about to entrance yet another overwhelmingly white audience with his unique talent of channelling John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a single speech.
His unmarked black campaign bus, unusual for the absence of the candidate’s name or face emblazoned on it, has rambled here over winding highways carved out of mountains,
past snow-coloured skies and occasional “Moose Crossing” signs, trailed by three SUVs of Secret Service detail, a van full of campaign staffers, and two Greyhound-size buses stuffed with reporters from three continents.
The line of people wanting to get into the theatre runs along the town’s main square and extends for several blocks. Obama has already been to the overflow room, where several hundred people wait to hear his voice pumped in. Elena Milius, 19, a student from Lebanon, arrived an hour and a half early to hear the senator. She’s already been to see Hillary Clinton and John Edwards and remains undecided. “I am here so I can decide. I hope he will be more specific about his policies. I’m looking to be inspired.”
By the end of the day, she will be. The spectacle that Obama serves up is like nothing available anywhere else on the campaign trail. Not in the trial lawyer appeals of John Edwards, not in the folksy Biblical parables of Republican Mike Huckabee, nor in the “straight talk”
of maverick Republican John McCain. And certainly not in the earnest policy wonkery served up at campaign stops by Clinton. Inside the Lebanon Opera House, Obama takes the stage, relaxed in a crisp dark suit and tie. He strikes the languid yet elegant pose that so often gets him compared to a jazz musician. As he speaks, he begins informally, in an intimate, even self-mocking tone, then moves seamlessly between the analytic discourse of the University of Chicago law instructor he once was, and the occasional cadences of a black preacher, which he’s never been.
By the end, as with each of his performances, he winds up to a thundering appeal to national unity, idealism and history-making that transports the mostly white middleclass voters to—at least in their imaginations— the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, marching for something greater than themselves.
It is the magic touch that delivered the voters of Iowa, where fewer than three per cent were African American, to Obama. And it is
the same magic touch that will almost deliver New Hampshire to the upstart young politician. Yes, he will go on to lose—very narrowly— to Clinton and her political juggernaut. But there is little doubt that voters in Iowa, and now in New Hampshire, have witnessed the making of a political superstar. There was a time when pundits rated his chances slim— too little, too soon, they said about his lack of experience. Pollsters also placed him far behind Clinton. And yet here he is, having made a Democratic nomination process that was to be a former first lady’s coronation into a true political horse race.
In Lebanon, Obama starts, as always, by thanking his local organizer, an orational springboard for reminding his audience that he began his career after Harvard Law School— where he had been president of the law review— as a community organizer in Chicago, working for a group of churches trying to find jobs and training for laid-off steelworkers. The
Lebanon organizer is a heavy-set man in a baseball cap called Big Dave. Calling him to the stage, Obama tells the audience that Big Dave won’t eat or sleep until he gets them all out to the polls. He asks the group to sign supporter cards, and requests that undecided voters raise their hands. About a quarter of the room does so, as do some people in the overflow room, even though Obama is not there to see them. “We’ve got some live ones over there, Dave!” he says. “We are coming after you, and coming after you hard,” he threatens with a smile, as he does at every stop—fun and cute, until he gets down to business.
“There is something going on out there, Lebanon,” he confides in his smooth, deep voice, now a bit gravelly from constant use and an incipient cold. “There is something stirring in the air. We heard it last week in Iowa when the American people stood up and said, it’s time for a new beginning.” Then
he begins to crank it up: “It will be your turn to stand up and say to the rest of the country, the time for change has come.” And louder: “To stand together and say that we are one nation, one people... and we are no longer going to accept a politics that is not serving the interests of ordinary Americans!”
The key voters in New Hampshire are the independents—registered to neither Democratic nor Republican parties but free to vote in the primaries of either. They are the ones who helped John McCain take this state in the Republican race of2000, and they are key to Obama’s strategy. He pushes hard to reach them—attacking partisanship rather than attacking Republicans. “We’ve had enough of the partisan food fight,” Obama declares. “We don’t like the trivialization of our politics. We don’t like the petty point-scoring. We don’t want any more game-playing,” he bellows. And then, with a dig at Clinton, he adds: “We don’t need somebody who plays the game
better.” What Obama offers is “not ideology, but practical common-sense solutions.”
IT’S SEXY STUFF. The voters at Obama events consistently say that they want an end to partisan polarization, and on that score they lump the Bushes together with the Clintons. Obama is very conscious of this, and acts accordingly. Later that day, at a rally in the city of Rochester, a group of anti-abortion protesters begins to heckle him. Obama begins by dismissing them, then stops himself. “It takes courage to stand in the middle of people who disagree with you and make your voice heard,” he says.
Amy Bunker, 29, a special education worker attending the Rochester event, says she’s never fallen for a candidate quite this hard. “It just hit me like a wave,” she says. “He’s one of the only candidates who has the power to unify on so many levels—not just race. To have him as the representative of the
nation... I’m just so revved up about it. I keep imagining him as Mr. President.”
In every speech, Obama launches into his vision for what he calls “a new governing majority—of bringing Democrats, independents and Republicans together to make change. He wants to offer health insurance to the uninsured—but not make it mandatory, as Clinton would. “We don’t have to agree on everything to agree on something,” he says.
He is for capitalism, but wants corporations to honour their pension obligations; for free trade, but wants labour and environmental protections in agreements. Obama, who unlike Clinton and Edwards did not support the Iraq war at the beginning, doesn’t promise to pull troops out, but only to “begin the process of ending this war.” And, he adds, “I will finish the fight against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan—which is where we should have been focused.”
He tells his audience he is not running out
of long-held ambition (take that, Hillary) or out of a sense that “it’s owed to me” (and that). Rather, it’s because of “what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now... that hour is almost upon us. The nation is at war. The planet is in peril...” A crescendo begins: “Americans are decent, honourable and generous, they are not as divided as our politics suggest.” Together, he says, “There is no challenge we could not solve. No destiny we could not fulfill.” The audience claps and hollers.
Obama ramps it up as he arrives at one of his favourite parts, denying the skeptics and cynics who, he says, claim that “Obama has not been in Washington long enough. He needs to be stewed and seasoned a little bit more. We need to boil all the hope out of him, so he sounds like us. Then, only then, he will be ready.” By now there is wild applausepeople are jumping to their feet. “We love you,” someone shouts. And he responds, “I love you too, sweetie!”
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