Weeks have passed since Barack Obama’s speeches could make bloggers emit oceanic feelings through their keyboards. Obamaism is no longer fresh or poised to sweep the world before it. Jeremiah Wright has complicated matters, as has the episodic sourness of the candidate’s wife Michelle. Obama trails John McCain in most national polls and has yet to put Hillary away.
He remains, however, a first-rate politician, with better media and communication skills than his rivals. There was no way to foresee his Teflon quality, that ability to glide through messes with nothing sticking. What other figure could survive media scrutiny of two decades of close association with the Reverend Wright and come through unruffled, dusting himself off as if it were a bump in the road?
The Pennsylvania primary will be a decisive contest, and during the first week of intense campaigning, Bill Clinton drew more than 6,000 to an indoor event at Penn State. Three days later, Obama drew 22,000 to an outdoor rally on the campus. People had to stand in line for two hours on a chilly Sunday morning, shuffle along slowly through security, and wait for hours more. The thousands did so cheerfully.
West of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s population is very white. But sports are probably the most powerful integrating force in American society, and at a large state university, they give blacks a unique status niche. Virtually all the young people waiting to hear Obama were white, but the volunteers who handled crowd control were a racially mixed group. The men funneling the lines through the metal detectors were large, clean-cut black guys, several wearing Penn State football sweatshirts. As the crowd settled in, a tackle sang the national anthem, on key and well, without accompaniment. Introducing Sen. Bob Casey, who would introduce Obama, was Penn State quarterback Lydell Sargeant, also black. Judging by his reception, he appeared to be the school’s most well known and popular student.
Obama began his speech—and received his loudest response of the day—by initiating the call and response football chant: “We are … PENN STATE.” Over 22,000 people jumping and yelling at the top of their lungs. He noted that he had just played some basketball with Senator Casey and a few “Lady Nittany Lions.”
This fusion of realms—sport and politics—is a comfort zone for the campaign and a reminder that the most important consequence of the integration of America’s playing fields in the ’50s and ’60s was less the opening of opportunities for a relatively small number of athletes but the acclimation of millions of whites to seeing blacks in positions of honor and leadership.
Obama’s speech was unremarkable. But the delivery was smooth and polished, the work of an entertainer as much as a politician, a man comfortable with the microphone, bien dans sa peau in the French phrase. No young women fainted, and few in the crowd displayed wild exuberance. But the mood was attentive. People were happy to be there.
Obama’s basic riffs are familiar to TV watchers, but new wrinkles are added. He said, “I believe in capitalism, free markets, and in entrepreneurship,” as if the campaign had recognized that there might be some doubt about this hovering over the former community organizer. If one was inclined to think of Obama as a leftist with an agenda to gently guide America toward socialism, there are indications one could point to: Che Guevara posters in his Houston campaign office, casual Chicago ties with some former Weather Underground types, hints of Marxian conspiracy phrasing in his otherwise timely 2002 antiwar speech, with its charge that the war was “an effort to distract us” from rising poverty rates. Jeremiah Wright, one recalls, preaches liberation theology as much as black nationalism.
But there’s something about Obama that makes such speculation seem not quite on point. Perhaps it is that he appears to be finding his way, still searching for core beliefs. He effectively uses uncertainty as a prop: “Wall Street is teetering on the brink of nobody knows what,” he told the crowd, a more felicitous line than the standard political pose of make-believe mastery. Of course pie-in-the-sky liberalism remains. He promises everyone healthcare as good as that available to U.S. senators. Demo-crats have said such things for years. Hopefully no one believes them.
Foreign policy is the root of antiwar conservative interest in Obama; his Iraq comments, his emphasis on the cost and the missed opportunity to defeat al-Qaeda draw applause. He promises not only to end the war but “end the mindset that got the U.S. into war.” This is important, a slap at the whole neoconservative/liberal hawk intellectual edifice. Not for Obama the routine argument that “the occupation was woefully mismanaged by the Bush administration.” Fair warning that he isn’t planning a recycled administration of Brookings Institution and New Republic types striving to put a “Trumanesque” gloss on neocon policies.
He stresses something one hears more frequently in private conversation: that his election would transform America’s image in the world. Abu Ghraib can’t be erased nor the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Americans killed and maimed made whole. But, he says, an Obama administration will tell the world “America is Back.” It’s an effective line. There is devilry in the details, of course. He mentions in the next breath readiness to provide leadership on Darfur and climate change. But the line promises both a rupture with the present and a restoration of continuity with a pre-George W. Bush national narrative—a message more forceful and broadly appealing than George McGovern’s “Come Home America.”
When the Pennsylvania campaign began, polls showed Hillary with double-digit leads. Days after Obama spoke at Penn State, one outlying measure showed him ahead. His financial and media advantages in the state are enormous, reinforced by his superiority as a campaigner. Much of Pennsylvania is Appalachian country, a broad geographic and cultural designation. It is a state laced with the sort of counties in which Hillary has previously trounced Obama. But it is football country as well, and Obama, now touring the state with several retired Pittsburgh Steelers, can plausibly dream of wrapping up the nomination battle in the Keystone State.
Then the country could settle down to the most visceral general-election clash in living memory: aging hero John McCain, “running for George Bush’s third term” in Obama’s terse description, versus a man who spent nearly two decades in Jeremiah Wright’s pews. It will be the ultimate test of Teflon.