30 April 2014

Discussion of Barack Obama's presidential campaign has mainly focused on the candidate's undeniable rhetorical skills and the obvious follow-up question: What, if any, substance lies behind them? He can talk the talk, but what's the walk, or is there a walk at all?



Conservatives like to point to his National Journal rating as the most liberal member of the US Senate, and considering another of its members -- Vermont's Bernie Sanders -- is an avowed socialist, that would be liberal, indeed. But many of the most hard-core liberals see in Obama just another bought-and-paid-for politician whose ability to mesmerize potential foot soldiers behind what they believe will ultimately prove to be a corporate agenda only diverts their energy and actually hurts the cause. And then there's a third camp of critics, who see just a gifted man with a large ego, uttering attractive but empty platitudes to advance the cause of nothing but the glory that is Barack Obama.



Well, I've seen meaningless, empty rhetoric ("Morning in America"), and I've seen cynical, deceitful rhetoric ("compassionate conservatism"), and I've seen them both work, and I've seen them both do great damage to the country, so count me among the skeptics. So when Obama came to Columbus, Ohio, this week, I felt compelled to go check things out for myself, and at the very least, cop a buzz from the energy of the crowd.



And the setting was a good one for that-- St. John's Arena on the Ohio State University campus, where a dozen or more Big Ten championship banners still hang though the basketball team has long since moved to more modern digs. St. John's is a compact, steep-sided pit of a coliseum, where viewed from the floor a fired-up crowd can give new meaning to the phrase "wall of sound."



Across Woody Hayes Drive is the famed "Horseshoe," the football stadium which hosts a modernist-style memorial to the legendary sprinter Jesse Owens, who while wearing the scarlet and gray at a meet in 1935 performed the almost unbelievable feat of breaking three world records and tying a fourth in the space of less than an hour. The next year he would go to the Berlin Olympics and strike blows against racism with a power only the heavyweight boxer Joe Louis could rival. It could plausibly be argued that Owens, almost simultaneous with Louis, was the first black man in American history whom large numbers of whites genuinely admired, cheered for, loved, and thus played more than a small part in preparing the way for the Barack Obama phenomenon.



"I've always watched politics from a distance," said Ciara Holland, a 19-year-old architecture and interior design student at OSU as she shivered in the frigid temperatures waiting to enter the arena, "but this year I wanted to be a part of it. Race is irrelevant. Homosexuality, race -- I think people my age are just more open-minded about things like that. It's what you stand for, and we want change. This election is going to affect us."



Despite the campus setting, though, both as a student (it was still before noon, after all) and as an African-American, Holland was in the minority. All ages were well-represented, and the crowd was probably 80 percent white, roughly approximating the demographics of the Columbus area. Mijiza Ashanti, a retired crisis intervention specialist from the Ohio State hospital system, brought two teenage grandchildren.



"I wanted them to see the first black president," she said. A staunch Democrat since the John Kennedy campaign, Ashanti said she adopted an African name in the 1970s, and despite living through the best and the worst of the civil rights movement, she said she wasn't surprised to see so many whites supporting Obama.



"They're seeing the same thing I'm seeing," she said. "He's a very intelligent man."



From the other side of what may no longer be a racial divide, Rhonda Donat, 72, a retired mechanical engineer, said, "I think it's a great achievement for our democracy and a vindication of our ideals. Race is not an issue. I don't know what to make of it. Maybe the country has changed."



Donat's companion at the event, who also fit what's thought of as the Hillary Clinton demographic, preferred to remain anonymous. "I come from a political family," she said. "I have two here somewhere who are volunteering for Obama, but . . ."



And the state's Democratic political establishment is as divided as the polls. Democratic icon John Glenn and Governor Ted Strickland are supporting Clinton; octogenarian ex-governor John Gilligan and Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, an African-American who was recently re-elected in a landslide in the majority white city, back Obama. For that reason, a Columbus city employee in his late 20s also didn't want his name mentioned.



"I never got very involved in politics, and then I started to see what happens when you don't," he said. "The war has been such an incredible waste of resources, and Obama's the one guy who didn't support the war."



And like for most of those interviewed, race went unmentioned until the questioner brought it up, and then it was dismissed as irrelevant, or even a point in Obama's favor.



"Young people are color-blind," he said. "Elections before have always been one old white guy against another old white guy, and it didn't seem like it made much difference. It's exciting to see someone pulling us together."



Amy Bulgrin and Katie Marquardt, sisters in their 40s whose grandfather was speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives in the late 1970s, also had concrete concerns for supporting Obama, despite gold-star credentials in what was once assumed would be a pro-Clinton political establishment.



"My company just got bought, and I lost my job," Marquardt said. "The middle class has been so eroded for seven years, I'm ready for a change, and I see Hillary as part of the old school."



"My husband worked on the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1992, and he's still leaning toward Hillary," Bulgrin said, and then smiled. "But he's the one who got us the tickets to this."



As the time for speeches approached, the crowd reached about 8,000, according to the Columbus Dispatch -- fairly modest for Obama, who has filled 20,000-seat stadiums elsewhere. But then again, it was mid-morning in mid-week, with wind chills around 0 degrees and four inches of overnight snow on the ground. And that was still more than five times the crowd John McCain drew to the same location during the 2000 campaign, which the newspaper then described as "huge."



I had read where organizers at these rallies tried to pump up the crowd's enthusiasm before Obama appeared, but I saw very little of that this time. Miss Ohio sang the national anthem, and there was a feeble attempt at a "wave," which never really petered in and petered out entirely by the third time around the building. The crowd mostly just sat and talked and waited for the bus from Cleveland to arrive while listening to the Pickerington Central High School band play "Hang on Sloopy" and other local favorites.



When the time came, former Ohio State Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George led the crowd in just two rounds of the Buckeyes' favorite football chant -- "O-H-I-O" -- and Mayor Coleman took no more than two minutes in introducing the candidate. "This election is about who we are as a people and as a country."



But prepped or not, when Obama came on, the audience erupted in a deafening roar, an almost organic force of nature emitting a sound that crescendoed and receded in spontaneous waves, like surf pounding on a beach, before settling into a chant of "O-Ba-Ma, O-Ba-Ma."



Even then, Obama didn't milk the moment, but quickly quieted the crowd and launched into his speech.



"I'd like to take all the credit for (that reception), but I know I can't," he said, preparing for his biggest applause line. "Because we all know, no matter what happens, George W. Bush's name is not going to be on the ballot this November."



For me, the speech was surprisingly devoid of lofty rhetoric. He made some specific policy proposals -- get out of Iraq, close Guantanamo and restore habeas corpus, eliminate tax breaks for companies outsourcing jobs and give them to companies creating jobs in America, raise the minimum wage and then index it to rise automatically with inflation. There were also more general goals -- "I not only want to end this war. I want to end the mindset that got us into this war. I want to end the politics of fear." And some platitudes -- "Every child is our child."



Most of all, he spoke the way any effective leader speaks, talking neither up at nor down to his audience, but using direct, forceful language, appealing to their better natures and offering a bargain that asked as much from them as it promised to them.



"Working as a community organizer was the best education I ever had, because I learned ordinary people can do extraordinary things, and change always happens from the bottom up," he said. "So we can change the world, but I need your help.



"Hope is not blind optimism. Hope is not ignorance of the challenges we face. Change is not easy, and these things take time. But nothing worthwhile ever happened unless somebody somewhere was willing to hope. Hope is imagining and then fighting for what didn't seem possible before."



So is the criticism valid, that the Obama campaign lacks substance behind the talk? It seemed to me that he talked specifics about as much as the next guy, and if his supporters, with the exception of the war issue, seemed more moved by gut-level reactions to his rhetoric and personality than position paper policies, has it ever been otherwise? Not in my lifetime. And when was the last time you got into a conversation with a Clinton supporter that ended in a discussion of the nitty-gritty of healthcare policy?



But the day after the speech, there appeared in the Dispatch a full-page, small-print ad laying out Obama's proposals on the economy -- trade policy, tax policy, clean energy, infrastructure, pension security, small businesses, home ownership -- in mind-numbing detail. And, the ad promised, this was just the first of five such ads to run daily through election day. It was hard to take it as anything but an in-your-face response to the criticism that the Obama campaign lacks substance, and it would be interesting to know, though probably impossible to find out, how many of those critics actually read these ads.



And people who portray Obama as a candidate whose success is based entirely on a rare gift of gab also either ignore or miss the remarkable organizing acumen of his campaign -- a leave-no-voter-behind approach that seems to think of everything right down to programming the St. John's scoreboards to read "Barack Obama 2008", and that takes full advantage of the enthusiasm the candidate generates to reach and persuade potential supporters on a personal level not seen since the days of the big city machines, which only had jobs to give out.



Some 300 volunteers worked the Columbus rally, and trying to get a quote from one of them was an all but hopeless endeavor. They knew their responsibilities, and zealously so -- at times it seemed overzealously. At one point, I was observed interviewing people in an area where such activity apparently was not supposed to happen, and with the polite assistance of a couple of Columbus' finest, I was shooed behind the barricades into the section reserved for the press. "You can talk to people from across the railing," I was assured.



Meanwhile, five large vans were at the ready to shuttle people from the rally four miles to the early voting location in downtown Columbus, and an early voting march is planned for the weekend. When I returned home from the rally, I found mailings from both the Clinton and Obama campaigns. And regardless of who has been distorting whose positions (although for the record, the Clinton glossy was an attack on Obama's healthcare policy; Obama's did not mention Clinton at all), both mailings urged voters to support their respective candidates March 4. But while Clinton's left it at that, Obama's went on the explain what documents would be necessary to satisfy Ohio's voter ID law, and then provided -- in three places -- a toll-free number to call for anyone who was still confused.



Perhaps most ambitiously, the campaign has set a goal of knocking on a million doors statewide -- a number almost equal to the toral number of votes cast in the 2004 Democratic primary -- between Saturday morning and the time the polls close Tuesday. A dozen rallying points have been established in the Columbus area where volunteers will meet three times a day each day before heading out.



Not that all of that means Obama's inspirational qualities are meaningless either. Back at the rally, Maggie Ledbetter was manning a "faith table," signing up people to speak on Obama's behalf at their churches on Sunday, or at the very least, to pass out Obama hand-held fans to the congregants, a campaign gift that would hopefully keep on giving through the summer.



Ledbetter, a young criminal defense lawyer from Chicago, quit her job so she could, with some financial assistance from her family, volunteer full-time for the Obama campaign. She has been following the campaign from state to state since November.



"I was telling my parents I was thinking about donating money to the campaign, and they said why don't you volunteer instead," she said. "I've been a big supporter of Obama's since he ran for the Senate in Illinois. I think the ability to inspire is important. When Demosthenes talked, people marched."