Thursday, January 31, 2008

An "ordinary American"'s take on Obama's Kansas appearance

First things first: Fellow Wichita blogger (and political science prof) Russell Arben Fox's comments on Obama's visit and on his candidacy generally are here. Russell was kind enough to link to yesterday's post even though I hadn't said anything, so thanks to him for that.

I refer the curious to some posts I wrote on Obama's post-race politics, here and here.

I look like "an ordinary American," according to the Obama campaign worker who selected me and a co-worker of mine to sit on the stage behind Obama as he spoke; as I oh-so vainly pointed out in the previous post, that's this blog's author seated in the lower row, second from the left; my co-worker is the woman with the bright-red hair on the same row. Seeing as I had doubts that I'd even get in the building at all, the fact that I ended sitting on the dais, even if only as window-dressing, is something I'm still having a bit of difficulty processing.

Below the fold, you'll find some travelogue-y material and some discussion of what Obama had to say. Something to keep in mind: I quite literally did not see this event as, even, the vast majority of the people in the gymnasium did, which made for a strange dynamic as far as I'm concerned. I'll explain that later.

Just about every let-me-tell-you-about-the-Obama-rally post I've ever read says something about the crowds this man draws, and this one will be no different.

El Dorado is about 30 miles east of Wichita. I left town so as to arrive there about an hour early, thinking that would be plenty early--after all, the temperature was in the low 20s, the wind was blowing a steady 30 mph, and it was snowing besides . . . what sort of line would there be?

When I arrived, not only was all the school's paved parking already filled, but the 100 yard-wide grassy space between that parking and the main road was filled with parked cars, and the drive-in theatre across the street was also filling up quickly. The line already had several hundred people in it, almost all of them directly exposed to the snow and wind, and even as they started letting people into the gym the line continued to grow in length. The gym seats only 1500 people; I was told later that three other large spaces were opened up on campus to handle the overflow--perhaps another several hundred, maybe as many as another thousand. This thing effectively shut down the college for the day.

It was as diverse a crowd as you're likely to see at a political rally in south-central Kansas: white and black, young and old, rural folks and a slim majority from Wichita. Others were from considerably further away. Not everyone there, I know, considered themselves Obama's political fellow travellers; one of my colleagues, a Republican, told me she was there because of this event's historical significance and because she admired his candidacy; and I suspect some were there more out of curiosity or an attraction to the spectacle. My co-worker who ended up on the dais with me volunteered that she had wanted to support Hillary Clinton's candidacy because she is a woman but gradually became turned off precisely because, as it seemed to my co-worker, Clinton began in various ways to draw attention to the fact that she's a woman. Events in South Carolina didn't help her opinion of (either) Clinton.

We got inside, we were able to get seats closer to the podium than we were initially, and the next thing we knew, my co-worker and I were invited to sit on the dais. Underneath the podium was a small wooden box, about a foot square, clearly intended to be stood on by a speaker. Some of us began to joke that perhaps the candidate was vertically-challenged and only now, figuratively being behind the curtain as we were, did we know the Truth of Things. More fodder for Drudge and all that.

Another hour, and then Obama arrived. He's about 6' tall, in case you were wondering. And here's where things become a bit strange. I may have been dubbed an Ordinary American that day, but I literally didn't see Obama as most everyone else did. One of my colleagues asked me today if he is as charismatic in person as he is on television, and I said, "Well, seeing as all I saw for the duration of his speech was his backside, it's kinda hard for me to say." An extraordinary orator Obama may be, but his backside is, I'm sorry to say, rather lacking in its ability to radiate rhetorical splendor. A speech's effectiveness depends on delivery, too, not just content, and delivery incorporates body language as well as the particulars of spoken language. I'm going to assume, based on what I heard, that Obama looked his usual, supremely-comfortable self.

And the speech itself? In those earlier posts of mine that I linked to above, I've pretty much said much of what I would say here--that the man not only knows what he's doing, but he is not shy to say some politically-risky yet absolutely-correct things (depending on your politics, of course) in front of the sorts of audiences that would find these things politically risky. While I understand why some people tend to dismiss Obama's rhetoric as kumbaya-speak, I'd argue that I personally find it much more substantive than that: it's borne of his experience as a community organizer in Chicago and an Illinois state senator. His image of the "working majority" is something that, on a smaller scale, he has already accomplished. By running for President, Obama "just" wants to do these same things on a larger scale. Maybe I've read enough of his speeches to know this; maybe I've imbibed deeply and often of the particular Kool-aid this man serves up (it's pretty tasty, by the way); but I really do believe that when he says "we," he really means "we." We've become so accustomed to politicians promising what they can do for us that when Obama talks of what we can do for each other--a dynamic that ignores all those divides that others have exploited for their own gain--we keep looking for the catch.

Or, more kindly but still suspiciously, we look for some particulars, some substance. In the El Dorado speech (scroll down past Sebelius' endorsement to find Obama's text), Obama provided some: a few that I recall are income tax exemptions for retirees earning less than $50,000 per year, yearly increases in the minimum wage, tuition credits of $4000 per year for college students in return for a period of national service, opt-out savings plans for workers that both they and their employers would contribute to. As I listened, I was struck by how much his speech sounded a bit like a State of the Union address, with its laundry-list quality. Thus, this speech didn't have quite the lift that Obama's speeches are known for--but then again, consider the view I had: had I been in the audience where I could see his face, I might have felt that lift.

But I did get to shake his hand afterward. I thanked him for his candidacy as I did so.

I want this man to be our President, though there have been times when I've thought that winning his party's nomination will be the harder task. It really does seem as though the Republicans see more clearly than do Democrats just how dramatically Obama shifts the usual paradigms we have regarding politics and politicians--and here I am speaking of his politics and not his race. I have good friends who argue that Hillary does, too; to them I'd ask, with all due respect: setting aside her gender, what does she offer as a way out of the morass our national politics has mucked about in for (again, sorry, Clinton fans) the past 16 or more years now? That's not a knock against her; she offers experience, and that's a legitimate offering. In the past, I would have happily opted for voting for someone--man, woman, black or white or what have you--whose pitch is that s/he knows how the game is played and plays it well as it stands now. But of late I've come to the conclusion that the issue is better framed not by asking Who can more competently play the game as is, but Who wants to change how the game is played?


R. Sherman said...

Things are playing out quite differently than I anticipated. Frankly, I thought that if he started to get some traction, he'd be crushed or co-opted by the Clinton machine. That doesn't seem to be happening.

What's interesting is that most Republicans I know seem to like him on a personal level, even if they strongly disagree with his politics. As for Democrats he provides them with the opportunity to demonstrate their dislike of the Clintons without any of the guilt associated with betrayal.

Much to consider.


Russell Arben Fox said...

John, thanks for the link, and thanks for providing us with a nice perspective (hmm...possible poor choice of words there) on Obama's visit. I wish I could have been there. Like I said, I'll probably have more to say about Obama soon; I'll be looking to see if you do the same (the primary is just six days away).

melponeme_k said...

I think it is interesting that everyone sitting on the stage was "cast".

John B. said...

Thanks, all, for dropping by.

Randall, like you I had considerably more hope than surety that Obama's rhetoric would play within the party, for various reasons: traditional alliances; the desire to not just win in November but engage in good ol' appeal-to-the-base, win-with-51% politics (learned at the knee of the Republicans, I might add). But it's clear to all but the myopic or hopelessly partisan that the breadth and depth of Obama's appeal are not what the party establishment expected (or, maybe, even wanted). It's astounding even to me, who, once upon a time, figured Hillary would win the nomination anyway and so was actively looking for reasons to get excited about her candidacy and, if that didn't work out, hope for a McCain nomination.

Russell, thanks (again), for not just the link but your kind words about me over at your place. I'm planning to caucus on Tuesday, and I'm very much looking forward to experiencing that for the first time.

"Mel", I think I know what you're implying, and you're right: there was some contrivedness to the racial and gender composition of the group on the dais, no question. Every politician seeks to control, as much as possible, what the camera sees. And in their defense, some of the people up there truly merited being there--the gentleman in the center of the lower row, for example, is a state senator. But let me assure you: what you see on the stage in that picture accurately reflected what I saw in the audience that day. To the extent that those of us up there were "cast," sure--you can be cynical about that if you're inclined to be. But it would be far more cynical for a campaign to seek to create the illusion of its candidate's diverse appeal when that is not in fact true. And, at least for that one stop on the Obama campaign, what you see in the picture is no illusion.

Pam said...

I'm trying to feel it, but John, I'm not. I can't get over how Obama was in South Carolina. He just wasn't speaking to me - and he presented himself very differently than he is at this moment, on CNN.

Anyway, I'm just cranky tonight. I needed a snowday today.

Gwynne said...

A momentous occasion to be sure. And to be on the stage representing the Ordinary American, no less.:-) As a Republican, I am one of those who likes Obama personally, as an orator, as a charismatic leader, as an organizer, but fears his politics. Of all the Democratic candidates, he is the one I'd like to see win the Democratic nomination, if only because he is so likeable.