It's been almost seven months on the campaign trail, his first as presidential candidate, and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois leans back in his chair and laughs as one of his aides watches the clock like a stopwatch at a track and field event.
The smile arises when I tell the Democratic presidential hopeful that he matches my often lengthy questions with even lengthier answers. We talk about merit pay for teachers, his policy disagreements with one of his main rivals, Sen. Hillary Clinton (less than meets the eye, he assures me in a manner that leaves me believing there's more than meets the eye), and what he means by overturning the status quo stench in Washington, D.C.
We sit in an office overlooking the Portsmouth harbor after Obama attended an outdoor town hall meeting last Sunday before more than 100 supporters and undecided voters who have come to see for themselves what the fuss is all about. In the brief interview time I have with him, he's relaxed (no surprise there: he always appears relaxed with the seeming metabolism of an ultra-marathon runner), sipping on water and eating nuts and fruits. He's in the midst of a typical insane day on the campaign trail, having started it with an early-morning nationally televised debate in Iowa — he will end it with an ice cream social in Dover. Like the other candidates, he doesn't show the constant grind of this 24/7 vetting process, a gauntlet this time around more intense and sustained than ever before that includes dealing with YouTube phenomenon like the racy "Obama Girl" video that confused his young daughters.
Obama's first appearance in the state came in February in a blaze of media adoration and high expectations that often accompany a presidential candidate with high celebrity cache. The massive crowd in Durham (around 2,000, an unheard of figure almost a year to go before the actual primary) was waiting to cheer, after six years of George W. Bush, for something or someone and Obama at the time filled the bill.
In retrospect, what was interesting about that appearance is how he had no real functioning campaign, they were truly making it up as they went along, and that he could disappoint the crowd by not giving expected servings of anti-Bush rhetoric. It's rare to see a politician actually lower expectations to a crowd wanting to eat out of his hand while simultaneously offering the less-tangible reward of hope merged with strains of pragmatism.
In that key element, Obama hasn't changed but only refined and broadened the message. At the end of the Portsmouth event, the first-term senator coyly tackled the "experience," or lack thereof, weakness that has been tied to him by the pundit politburo and other campaigns. Obama, 46, has turned the terms of that issue around to judgment because, well, experience isn't all that it's cracked up to be (see Rumsfeld, Donald; Cheney, Dick; and the Democratic leadership that caved in to President Bush in 2002 over the Iraq war vote.) When Iraq war veteran and Pennsylvania Congressman Patrick Murphy recently endorsed Obama, he said in a press statement "Speaking as a former captain in the 82nd Airborne Division, I know that he has the judgment we need to be our next commander-in-chief." Coincidentally or not, there's that word: judgment.
For those curious to see how Obama defines experience and judgment, I recommend reading his first book, the frank and revealing autobiography "Dreams from My Father." Written in the 1990s, before he became an elected politician in Illinois, this chronicle of his life — and especially his time as a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s — offers insight into race relations, poverty and political atrophy at a level rare for a presidential candidate.
The launch of "Generation Obama," a youth organizing drive in various key primary states, is an example of grassroots building that has led so far to unprecedented amounts of fund-raising. Patience was one political habit that Obama learned the hard way, as recounted in the book. Of course, all candidates have patience and persistence but what makes this race interesting is how they acquired it.
His judgment has been called into question from across the board. One British columnist wrote recently in the Times of London that "Obama's collected thoughts on foreign policy, so far, are an extraordinary mixture of belligerence, evasion and contradiction, which lack the intelligence and coherence of his proposals on other fronts." A few days after we talked, Obama pushed the envelope further by calling for a more rational Cuba policy. As he's said before, he told me with emphasis that if elected he will go to a Muslim country in the Middle East to give a major speech about American aims and values in that region and the world as if that could be a foreign policy breakthrough.
Every candidate has said, as Obama said in Portsmouth, that nobody in this race can do it better." The "it" in this case: restore the country's tattered stature in the world (courtesy of those "experienced" ones in Washington) and work past the Blue state/Red state divide. Obama added a qualifier that does resonate differently with voters. When he becomes president, he said, "America will look at itself differently and the world will look at America differently." He's no longer the unscrutinized media darling and he has taken and exchanged jabs and uppercuts from his fellow rivals and the pundit horde — rival and former Sen. John Edwards has even quietly tarred Obama, along with Clinton, of being part of the Washington morass. He's even taken a poke at his own media image by saying he's a "hope monger" to a crowd in Brooklyn while also saying that his candidacy will raise black voter turnout to record levels.
All this will be academic in the end if Obama doesn't make the sale at the ballot box. One liberal voter told me Obama didn't do it for him, a result perhaps of a low-energy symposium style of broad themes over specific details that doesn't make for easily inserted applause lines. One voter I talked to in Portsmouth, veteran elementary school teacher Chris Culver, said, before seeing Obama for the first time, that "experience or not isn't an issue for me. He has the brilliance to pick the right people to work for him." After watching Obama, Culver said he was "thoughtful and insightful" but she wasn't sold yet.
Political columnist Michael McCord is the opinion page editor of Herald Sunday and the Portsmouth Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.