As Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) struggles to revamp his presidential campaign, it appears that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) finally has found his presidential rhythm. With millions in the bank and lots more from where it came from, it’s time he started to strut his stuff.
Much has been written about Obama’s rock-star status, his ability to draw huge crowds and raise record-breaking sums of money for a first-time candidate. But plenty of people are still wondering what will prevent Obama from becoming the next energetic-outsider-candidate-turned-doomed-primary-election loser. [IMGCAP(1)]
Obama’s strengths have been his pragmatism and optimism. Yet those are not attributes particularly important to the substantial segment of Democratic voters so energized by anger that they will all but stampede to the polls. They are (rightly) angry at the dangerous course the Bush “league” administration has steered our country toward and they want a candidate who can express that outrage.
Voters sometimes confuse anger with power, thinking that candidates who express raw emotion can effect the change they seek. Like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), those of us who have worked on presidential campaigns understand this phenomenon. Perhaps one of the reasons Obama is still in second place in national as well as many statewide polls is that he’s not sufficiently angry for some of these folks.
Early on, when people first heard Obama, they worried that he was coming across as too professorial and didactic. He often left us feeling that he may be too willing to compromise to create the hopeful and positive new direction for the country that he so often talks about. Now it sounds like Obama is finding his presidential voice. Careful not to make the same mistakes as Howard Dean’s overly energetic candidacy in 2004, his voice is not shrill. But it is strong and clear.
While Obama understands the importance of reaching across the partisan divide and working with Republicans, he also has a clear understanding of the Democratic principles of fairness, security and opportunity for all. And he stands ready to champion those issues on behalf of those who are trying to make the American dream their reality as well as those who live it as their everyday existence.
As I sat down to watch the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People forum in Detroit last week, I was struck by Obama’s ability to finally connect with his audience by giving voice to the anger, the hopelessness and the desire that so many people of color have for real inclusion and not just happy talk. The press noted the enthusiastic response from the crowd as well as the dramatic difference between this appearance and an earlier Howard University debate before a similar audience. In Detroit, Obama energized the crowd by speaking truth to power with a power all his own. He showed the audience that he would not sit quietly and watch injustice go uncorrected.
Obama is finally hitting his groove. He is sharing a personal narrative and spouting a record of achievement that distinguishes and defines him. He is forging a message that can both motivate the base needed to win the primaries and yet appeal to the swing voters so crucial in the general election.
Granted, Obama is up against a formidable candidate in Clinton. If Obama has a shot, then he must now turn voters so eager to be inspired into an army that will register to vote, run as delegates and get others to the polls on primary or caucus day. Though Obama is behind in the national polls, it is notable that in the three early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Clinton is leading in only one, narrowly.
With millions in the bank and thousands of volunteers on the streets, Obama is building the type of infrastructure needed to win delegates. He has significant endorsements from establishment insiders such as former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle and Jim Johnson, chairman for Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign. Obama also has attracted firebrands such as Cornel West and former presidential candidate and civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Yet Obama is still seen, as Dean was in 2004, as the chosen leader of the net roots/grass roots — someone who can be brought down quickly by the fickle media that built him up. Unlike Dean, however, Obama is creating an organization in the early states that polls do not necessarily reflect because it includes a multitude of unlikely primary election voters.
Recent data suggests that young people, the Obama generation, are becoming more engaged in politics. They can help push Obama into first place, especially in a state such as New Hampshire that permits same-day registration and allows independents to vote in either party primary.
For Obama to remain their candidate, however, he needs to understand that it’s not enough to finally feel your rhythm. Optimism may have gotten him on the dance floor and pragmatism may have kept him from tripping over his own feet, but Obama must show them and the rest of us that he has enough experience and a clear vision to lead us together in the right direction.
Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.