Obama’s South Carolina Debut

Feeling the love in Columbia.

This is the first of two stories on Barack Obama’s weekend swing through South Carolina. The second story can be found here.

Barack Obama greets supporters in South Carolina

COLUMBIA, S.C.—“Are you here for the wedding or Obama?” the security guard asked me Friday night at the Metropolitan Convention Center in Columbia, S.C. A traditional Indian wedding was being performed down the hall from the Obama rally. It was hard to tell which event had more love. Nearly 3,000 people showed up to see and gawk at the Illinois senator. “I am amazed,” said interior designer Laura Fulton as she looked over the crowd. “I am proud of South Carolina. There are African-Americans, Caucasians, Hispanics, and Indians. It looks like the world. It seems like that is the kind of guy he is—of the world.” At the back of the room stood a clutch of Indian women who had come over from the wedding dressed in blazing orange and red saris.

Obama arrived beneath an enormous American flag and swam about 30 yards through the pawing crowd  to the stage in the middle of the hall. A medley of Bruce Springsteen songs had been playing, but upon the candidate’s arrival the music quickly switched to Aretha Franklin’s Think. The crowd surged toward the stage. The young couples stopped the cuddling that had been getting them through the wait. “I am overwhelmed,” he said taking the stage, “and overjoyed.”

Wearing a dark suit and striped tie, Obama spoke in the round, roaming the stage so that he could face all corners of the audience. He reprised much of his young stump speech, talking about the Iraq war, health care, and education, but the bulk of his pitch was thematic. He called the audience to rally around a new kind of hopeful, less-divisive politics. “There has always been another tradition in politics,” he said. “This idea that says we are connected as a people. Just because the world as it is is unjust and just because the world as it is is full of strife and violence and poverty … just because that’s the world we see in front of us now, doesn’t mean it is the world as it has to be, and politics can close that gap.” Obama was regularly interrupted by cheers and applause, but he delivered the evening’s rhetorical high point when he responded to a local politician. Earlier in the week, African-American state Sen. Robert Ford announced he was backing Hillary Clinton. “Everybody else on the ballot is doomed,” Ford said, explaining what would happen if Obama were nominated. “Every Democratic candidate running on that ticket would lose because he’s black and he’s at the top of the ticket—we’d lose the House, the Senate, and the governors and everything.”  

Ford’s endorsement, along with that of another prominent African-American official, was timed to steal a little of Obama’s thunder and presumably contribute to another round of stories about whether he could appeal to black voters. Instead, it was a gift. “I’ve been reading the papers in South Carolina,” Obama said before using a preacher’s cadence to paraphrase Ford’s remarks. “Can’t have a black man at the top of the ticket.” The crowd booed. “But I know this: that when folks were saying, We’re going to march for our freedom, they said, You can’t do that.” The audience roared. “When somebody said, You can’t sit at the lunch counter. … You can’t do that. We did. And when somebody said, Women belong in the kitchen not in the board room. You can’t do that. Yes we can.” (At this point I can’t reconstruct the remarks from my tape recorder because the screaming was too loud.) The crowd responded by chanting: “Yes, we can.”

Obama is going to gain more from Ford’s endorsement than Hillary Clinton is. It would have been too audacious, even for Obama, to so overtly link himself to America’s civil rights struggles, but Ford’s remarks invited him to. Obama will no doubt use that new portion of his stump speech again, and outside of South Carolina. The audience, well represented with African-Americans, loved it. “I got chills,” said Constance Eikins, an African-American stay-at-home mom. “It’s very overwhelming. I am happy at the thought of it. We have come a long way.”

Click here to read about Obama’s second day in South Carolina.