Friday, July 20, 2007

Obama in Manchester

Of all the candidates coming through New Hampshire, Barack Obama has been the one I wanted to see most. I saw John Edwards three times in 2004. Hillary Clinton I think I know pretty well. Everybody else on the Democratic side is a long-shot, and everybody on the Republican side is still trailing None Of The Above. The interesting question is Obama.

He can draw crowds. He can raise money. He can give a good speech. But is he the real thing? I had tried to see for myself three times. Twice I waited too long to get a ticket to a limited-seating event. Once I got snowed out. Today in Manchester I finally succeeded.

Now that we're about half a year from the New Hampshire Primary, I'm starting to get more serious about who I should support. And that is changing the way I listen to candidates. I find I don't really care so much about the fine distinctions in policy that separate the Democrats. Because it's not like the Bush administration is close to doing things right and only needs a little fine-tuning. It's like they're in Texas when they ought to be in Minnesota: Anybody who points north has the right idea.

So all the Democrats want to at least start pulling troops out of Iraq. They all want to move in the direction of universal health care. They all decry torture and the loss of human rights both here and abroad. They all want to appoint more liberal judges. They all think the gap between rich and poor has gotten too large. They support doing something about global warming.

I'm not going to lose sleep about wonky policy stuff that separates them. If President Edwards could pass the Obama health plan, I think he'd be happy. Or vice versa. Some Democrats want to pull completely out of Iraq and some want to leave a residual force, but however you pull troops out it's going to take a while. Things will happen during the withdrawal process, and a president who starts out to do one might easily wind up doing the other. That's not going to decide my vote.

What am I listening for? Three things: I try to listen for authenticity, though I'm not sure I'm sharp enough to tell the difference. Second, I'm listening for how a candidate's mind works. That's why I really wanted to hear Obama answer unscripted questions. When I listen to President Bush, it's obvious to me that he's been prepped with a handful of canned answers, and he listens to a question just long enough to decide which one to start reciting. Some of them, I think, he understands no better than a parrot saying "Polly want a cracker." Bill Clinton, on the other extreme, can listen to a question and pull together the facts and ideas necessary to craft a unique answer for that particular person.

I want the next president to have a Clinton mind rather than a Bush mind.

Finally, I'm picking somebody to carry my message to the world. So as I listen, I'm also trying to figure out how this candidate will sound not just to me, but to the rest of America. Is s/he going to be able to go all over the country and speak to people in words and images that will get through to them? (That, by the way, is why I'm hoping that Gore stays out of the race. I admire Gore tremendously and think he'd make great decisions as a president. But he's not the voice I want making my case. His new book is a great example. I love the thinking that went into it, and I wish I could have edited it before the public saw it.)

By those standards, Obama did great Friday in Manchester, when I finally got to see him. (I had tried to see him three times before. Twice I didn't call soon enough to get one of the limited number of tickets. Once I got snowed out.) He talked in the round for a little less than an hour, splitting the time almost evenly between prepared remarks and questions. He covered the policy positions I expected and sounded like he both understood them and authentically supported them. He answered questions smoothly and directly. And he spoke in terms that were clear without seeming dumbed down.

His critique of the Bush administration had just the right amount of emotion: warm but not shrill. I had worried that his talk would be all feel-good abstraction, but he had command of the wonkish stuff without getting lost in it. The abstract themes -- hope and the desire Americans have to be for something rather than just against something -- were there, but they didn't crowd out a discussion of health care (Obama believes a health plan covering all Americans could be passed during the next president's first term.) or energy policy. (He wants the CAFE standards on gas mileage to gradually rachet up to 45 miles per gallon.)

The questions did not seem planted. The first questioner challenged the Democrats' congressional strategy for getting our troops out of Iraq. Obama had talked about working towards 67 votes in the Senate to override a veto. The questioner wanted to know why we didn't instead go for 41 votes to filibuster the next bill appropriating money for Iraq. Obama pointed out that he had voted against the last Iraq appropriation, but that there were only (I think he said) 22 votes against it. (Somebody at DailyKos pointed out that the actual number is 12. That may be what he said.) Getting 41 votes to block funding, he claimed, would actually be harder than getting 67 votes to mandate a withdrawal. Not sure I agree, but it was a clear and direct explanation. He threw the ball back into our court and urged us to put pressure on New Hampshire's two Republican senators.

This allowed Obama to get back into his discussion of Iraq, which is nicely framed. He does not make a war-is-bad speech. Instead he argues (as most Democrats do) that Iraq has diverted attention from the real Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "It's not whether you are a hawk or a dove, it's whether you've got your eye on the real threat."

One questioner said her medical bills had forced her into bankruptcy. Obama had the sense to realize that it was better for the crowd to understand the reality of her situation than to hear a repeat of his health care plan, so he asked her follow-up questions before going into his answer.

The final question was from a Vietnam veteran, who said that the veterans' health system was not working, and in particular mentioned the scandal about Walter Reed hospital. This allowed another good sound bite: "Part of planning for a war is planning for the veterans after the war."

In short, I'm not completely sold yet, but Obama addressed my major worries. If he winds up being the nominee, that's not going to break my heart.


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