Monday, September 17, 2007

What is it about Obama?

(Published 7/14/07)

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was in Birmingham Monday to kick off the Alabama portion of his campaign.

I became aware of Obama after his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and I’ve followed his progress since Oprah made him her candidate on her show back in October.

What is it about Obama that made people pour into the streets of Springfield, Ill., as he stood on the steps of the Old State Capitol and formally joined the race for president?

And, from a more practical perspective, how was he able to raise $32 million in the second quarter?

So on Monday, it was Obama. In Birmingham. And I have to admit, I was curious.

Tickets to the rally were $25. Interesting, I thought; entry was possible for the price of a couple of meals at a local restaurant.

I admit that I was expecting a predominately African-American crowd. This was Birmingham, and as Obama himself noted, the "shadow" of the 16th Street Baptist Church loomed just a few blocks away.

I was also expecting a predominately young crowd.

Wrong on both counts.

The 2,000 assembled made up as difficult a group to characterize demographically as I have ever been around. A majority of the crowd was white. And there were just as many middle-aged folks as Generation Xers. There were even a few elderly folks, to boot.

Much about the rally itself was typical. But when Obama emerged from behind the curtain, something changed.

He was just as he’s been billed - articulate, poised, relaxed and accessible. He touched on common themes, including health care, the economy, education, climate change and, of course, Iraq.

He only spoke for about 15 minutes, but it was like a combination of African-American church services and a Rolling Stones concert. By the time he was done, even the white folks were saying "Amen!"

I have to admit that even I was drawn in by his statement about being "obsessed with the idea that we can somehow draw out the core decency" of our nation.

People who know me know that I am quite an idealist. I actually had someone joke recently that he was going to beat the idealism out of me.

(What’s wrong with being an idealist? Idealism is what made this country possible, so I don’t understand why more people aren’t idealists. I guess their friends beat it out of them.)

Anyway, as the crowd was dispersing, I saw three middle-aged white women huddled together, chatting. Bingo, I thought; here’s where I’ll get my answers.

Why are you here? I asked them.

"He’s a fresh face," said one.

"He’s so inspiring," said another.

"I brought these binoculars to look into his eyes," said the third. "He’s pure."

But what about Hillary, the women’s candidate? If Hillary has a base, these three 50-something women - a teacher, a freelance writer and a life coach - are it.

"I don’t trust her," said one. "She has too much baggage."

"I can’t respect her," said the next. "She took too much stuff off of her husband."

"I’d be voting for her if it wasn’t for Obama," said the third.

And then, the kicker:

"I haven’t been this excited about politics since the Kennedys," she said.

I wondered on the way home what it is about people that drives them to expect these intangible qualities from their political executives.

Mayors and governors are expected to be "leaders" on a different scale than those who sit on city councils and county commissions and serve in state legislatures. Executives are expected to "lead," but legislators are simply expected to be able to "work together" (notable exceptions include the Taiwan Legislature and the Alabama Senate).

Obama has come a long way since that night on the Boston stage in 2004. And he’s staked his claim as a frontrunner by talking about hope for the country and the dreams of its citizens.

He’s a dynamic speaker, no doubt about it. But time will tell whether it will be enough to put him in the White House.

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