Wednesday, January 2, 2008

First Person Account--of Barrack Obama

I have only seen 4 of the Democratic candidates this cycle. (Actually, I've seen them all, but more on that tommorrow.) On Sunday I reported on Joe Biden. On Monday I wrote about Bill Richardson. Late last night I posted my impressions of John Edwards. Today I'll focus on Barrack Obama who is shown in the picture to the right giving a high-five to a pumped-up and forward-leaning Henry Q.

One day last spring, I watched several of Obama's early campaign speaches on the internet. After viewing them, I called my wife and said, "This man is going to win the nomination and the win in a rout in the fall." So the first time I saw him speak in person was in a community college gymnasium late last spring. The place was packed. The atmosphere was electric. He got up and spoke. I thought he was just OK. He was low-key most of the time. He stumbled here and there. For commas he used "ummm". It was similar to the performances we've seen from him in the debates.

But he still held that crowd. About 1,400 on metal chairs and hard plastic bleachers were eager to fall in love. I thought, If only he could have been a charisma donor to Gore and Kerry." I think this translates on television. Mainly it's his voice. But it is also his intelligence and his naturalness. In July we took the family to see Obama at a county park outside Des Moines.

I wrote an account of it at the time.

Obama's tone was much more conversational and relaxed [than Edwards]. He moved from issue to issue, laying out his positions and insights. He didn't come across as polished as Edwards. He didn’t punch his lines and give us cues when to applaud. He also didn’t base it around a theme—like fairness—that can build momentum and help the listeners to mentally organize what they are hearing. I’m not sure whether it was just a subdued crowd—out in the shade on a warm summer day by one of the bridges of Madison County—or whether his speech was just more low-key. Where Edwards was constantly on the attack against Bush, Republicans, and big business, Obama was much more circumspect, mentioning “the last six years” and “those in power”. I guess that is the ‘positive’ campaign that he has been running. Overall, he came across as thoughtful, warm, and relaxed.

He came to our small town in November. It went surprisingly well. Three hundred people showed up. We didn't think there were that many Democrats in the county. He was much more polished this time. He was still using parts of his Jefferson-Jackson Day speech. He handled questions especially well. It was a festival atmosphere that I haven't seen with any other candidate not named Clinton. I saw a couple of men in suits flanking the stage as he spoke. They never moved anything but their heads. I said to my wife, "Those are the worst sign language interpreters ever." She said something about the secret service and then mumbled something more about her life-long burden.

[more great stuff after the jump]

Obama came to town again two weeks ago. There was a mostly new group of 300 people there to see him. It was a similar stump speech as the one in November, hitting a number of issues, but employing broad generalities. This is probably my biggest frustration with Obama. While I know that specifics change quickly once they're exposed to the noxious environment of the legislative process. While I understand that the greatest challenge a president will face is typically unknown at the time of his or her election. While I realize that specifics are where many politians get tripped up. And while I believe that few people base their choice of a candidate on the nuts and bolts of his or her position, I want to hear the candidate talk about the specifics occasionally--if only to reassure me that he or she knows them and understands them. I want to see how their logic works and what assumptions they use. Obama has already stumbled in this area when he employed the Republican assumption that Social Security is in crisis. And I'm not as impressed with his health plan as I am with Edwards' or even Bidens'.

My other concern with Obama is that he is not as strong in foreign policy. No, strike that. It's that he just doesn't come off as strong in general. Hillary just seems tougher, somehow. Now, I've been in the 'anyone but Hillary' camp the entire campaign, but if the Republicans nominate Guiliani (which they won't) or McCain (which I fear they will) AND if there is a significant national security threat (or a successful pretend one, courtesy of the Vice President's office), the Democrats would be in a much better position with Clinton as the nominee.

However, I've just got this gut feeling that Obama could be a great president. He would likely be a conventional centrist in most areas. But, as they say about the next basketball recruit, this kid has a great upside. He has the skills and the intellect and the work ethic (sorry, still going with the basketball metaphor). And the height.

I'm in substantial agreement with the article "Goodbye to All That" by Andrew Sullivan in The Atlantic last month. I won't summarize the article. In fact I don't think I read the whole thing, because I was hooked as soon as I gathered the thesis, that Obama is uniquely qualified to bridge many of the divisions to which America has become addicted. Obama and I and our peers are Baby Boomers by the rules of demographics. But we don't remember Kennedy being shot (in my defense, I was still in utero), were never subject to the draft, were children when the Roe decision was announced, and when Watergate was being unravelled. We have been watching the fights and flights of older Baby Boomers our whole lives. And frankly, we are tired of every election still being about Vietnam. And I have no interest in the next election being all about the 90's. Obviously, not everyone from our age group could change this. But I know that someone from the first wave of Boomers will never be allowed to.

Besides, if you read the link to my earlier article on Obama you'll find that he told me "You have a beautiful family". I'm a sucker that stuff.