Barack Obama (AP Photo)
Last month, two days after he announced his presidential candidacy, Sen. Barack Obama came to New Hampshire riding a rock star political wave. When he spoke at the University of New Hampshire, he did something rare in this era of easy-to-serve partisanship. When a good dose of expertly placed Bush-bashing could have really fired up the curious and mostly adoring crowd, the Democratic Party freshman senator from Illinois declined.
Itís not an accidental tactic. When I mentioned to Obama during a recent conversation that I heard him utter the name of the nation's unpopular president only once - and then to praise George Bush for his attempts at immigration reform - he chuckled.
"It reflects my temperament, " Obama said about his refusal to feed red meat to an audience hungry for it. He got a lot of temperament from his mother, but it goes back as well to his community organizing days in Chicago when he learned partisanship without pragmatism was bad politics and led to bad policy choices or worse. "I cut my teeth on grassroots politics and learned about the capacity of ordinary people. You can rage against injustice all you want. Calling people names is not going to bring about lasting change. People are more interested in solutions."
He insists that bipartisanship shouldnít be a punch line and continues to treat the Blue State/Red State as a false distinction.
"Despite having a progressive voting record, I got strong bipartisan support and am proud of that," he said. He chooses not to speak in either/or terms preferring a "both/and" approach reflecting his life narrative.
It goes further. Watch Obama in person or catch him on C-Span talking to voters and he rarely mentions his Democratic opponents. As if they donít exist. He talks of fighting bigger battles, against apathy and cynicism and of dealing with the ever-growing collection of policy messes that await the next president. And that means "turning the page" on past political conflicts. In this paradigm of the new campaign Obama is running - call it way above the fray - Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, John McCain and the rest of the candidates, Democrats or Republican, are consigned to the dust bin of irrelevance.
Of course, it takes a certain arrogance to put yourself above the fray, like a precocious young chess master who knows all the moves and barely bothers with his opponents. It may be a stretch to call a 45-year-old man precocious, but Obama fits the bill. And why not? After all, five years ago he was an ambitious but unknown member of the Illinois Legislature and today heís wooing hearts, minds and souls to complete the most remarkable political rise since, well, perhaps another guy from Illinois by the name of Lincoln.
It was no accident that Obama launched his campaign at the old Illinois Statehouse in Springfield, where Abraham Lincoln cut his political teeth. Obama told me he admires Lincoln, his generosity of spirit, the way he kept his cool while the Union was falling apart around him, and kept his political enemies close at hand.
"Iíve also been struck by his combination of pragmatism and political genius," Obama said. Like other historical and literary figures he admires and has read - Martin Luther King, Gandhi, James Baldwin and William Faulkner - I suspect Obamaís thinking big picture. Very big picture.
Part of that big picture is you. Literally you. His campaign Web site Obama says it all: "This campaign is about you." He told a Washington Post reporter that heís aware people are starving for change and are throwing their hopes onto him. He told me he learned on the streets of Chicago that people yearn "for more accountability, more responsibility."
This can verge into touchy-feely parody, but Obama said he believes what is drawing big crowds to his campaign stops is the "civility and common sense" he offers. Heís convinced heís tapped into the zeitgeist and can ride that wave.
Heís been light to nonexistent on program specifics, but not on Iraq. Iraq may be his ultimate trump card with Democratic primary voters - especially in New Hampshire. Heís as pure as driven snow when it comes to political accountability about the Iraq disaster. No votes to explain or apologies to make. He hasnít shown much charity to those Democrats who did vote to give Bush what he wanted (re: Hillary Clinton), insisting it was a serious lack of judgment. (It also deals with the experience issue, which he believes is overrated anyway.) He wasnít in the Senate in 2002 so he had no vote to make, but he was already eyeing a run for the Senate and made his opposition known clear and loud.
A Democratic political mercenary I know (who happens to work for a rival campaign) told me that had Obama been wrong about Iraq, "we wouldnít be talking about him today." Obama told me heís learned on the campaign trail that "Iraq is overriding" and, not unlike the Vietnam War period from 1967 to 1971, itís dominating the political environment. He told me he proposed legislation for a "measured plan of phased withdrawal" allows the military to begin preparing for whatís next, which might be a humanitarian catastrophe.
"The courage of our soldiers has been extraordinary," he said. "But thereís no military solution. We need to be as careful in our exit as we were careless in our entrance." Heís been nimble so far on the campaign trail. He quickly acknowledged a verbal mistake when he categorized "wasted" American deaths in Iraq (though itís a tragic truth that dare not be spoken for many Americans). As the media vetting of this largely unknown person ramps up, there have been dust-ups, such as unpaid parking tickets in Boston and questionable blind trust activity, but his campaign took care of them fast. Intentionally or not, Obamaís two books about his life and his philosophy have allowed him to set the starting line parameters of how he will be defined.
Katie Payne, a Durham Democrat, has yet to support a candidate, but admits she would like to see Al Gore in the race and her dream ticket would be Gore/Obama. Payne thinks Obama is creating "a different kind of dialogue," while Hillary Clinton, despite her considerable legislative strengths and savvy, "reminds me of the 20th century." Payne has discovered, to her surprise, that "more Republicans are listening to him." Barack Obama likely wouldnít be surprised. Itís all part of the plan.
Michael McCord is the opinion page editor of Herald Sunday and the Portsmouth Herald.
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