ORANGEBURG, S.C.—Barack Obama is a talented campaigner, but he’s not perfect. Once he whips a crowd into a frenzy, he sometimes doesn’t know what to do with it. Yesterday, he electrified the Convention Center in Columbia, S.C., by refuting the claim that a black man could not be a viable Democratic Party nominee. I figured he’d just end the speech there. Someone with his skills would know that you always want to leave an audience wanting more. Plus, he’d been speaking for more than a half-hour. But he didn’t stop. He started a long and less powerful story about his Senate campaign. The energy in the room dissipated for a period.
Natural politicians learn on the fly and so the next day at Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., Obama saved the crowd-pleaser for the end. After a question and answer session, he repeated the successful riff from the day before. “At every turn in our history, there’s been somebody who said we can’t,” he told the nearly all-black audience of about 2,000. “I’m here to tell you, Yes we can.” He received the same crescendo and left like a rock star.
Half of South Carolina’s Democratic primary voters are black, which is why Obama spent Saturday morning speaking to the African-American congregants at the Brookland Baptist church. (They wouldn’t let me listen, but the church elders were very nice about it.) At Claflin, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn introduced Obama by conjuring the memories of civil rights heroes: “Obama is able to run today because Rosa Parks sat down. He is able to run today because Septima Clark stood up.” Though Clyburn is not endorsing any candidates, he concluded his introduction by saying, “Run, Barack, run.”
As a candidate running on a platform of hope and inspiration, Obama needs his rhetorical talents because his policy proposals are so conventional. He wants to fund universal healthcare by repealing some of the Bush tax cuts, raise the minimum wage, improve medical technology and pay teachers more. These may all be fine ideas, but they don’t have the power or the rhetorical force of the portion of his speech in which he calls for a new, more-noble politics.
Obama is talking about fundamentally rewiring the broken political system, removing the divisions and knitting together new coalitions. So how is he going to do this? He doesn’t really say yet. It’s not that he lacks specifics. He is specific about Iraq and, as he says, there will be time for plans. But Obama’s challenge is not just to produce stacks of white papers. He’s got to be specific about how his vision for a new kind of politics runs through the policies he puts forward. He knows how to hit this mark. Last July, he gave a nuanced and thoughtful speech about faith and politics. How will he do that on other issues? What admissions will he make about his party’s stubbornness and myopia that will show reasonable Republicans that he’s operating in good faith? Will he challenge voters and ask for sacrifice or will he sell the same kind of unrealistic promises that fuel the cynicism from which he hopes to deliver us? He offered a glimmer of this in Orangeburg when he argued that improving education is about more than just adding more resources. He challenged the African-American audience to speak out against “the anti-intellectualism in our communities … where kids say: Why you carrying a book? Why you speaking proper?”
Obama had to truncate his town hall at the school to make it back to Washington to vote on the president’s troop surge in Iraq. He was trying not to short-change the audience and also make his own points, but time passed quickly. As he spoke, an aide crawled on the floor below him and made increasingly flamboyant gestures towards his watch. Obama didn’t see him, probably because he was trying to avoid the woman in the fire-engine red African dress who was trying to get his attention. Her name is Amirah FM Azadi and she is interested in a program of reparations for all descedents of slaves. When she unfurled an elaborate poster to make her case, a security guard moved next to her. Obama called on someone else. She waved and tried to speak in a stage whisper to Mrs. Obama, who was sitting near her husband. Obama ignored her and called on another questioner. A man in the front row tried to help by standing up to block Azadi. She then tried to wrestle the microphone from a woman waiting to ask a question. She was unsuccessful. “I’m going to write him a letter and tell him he’s a coward,” she said after Obama had departed.
Click here to read about Obama’s first day in South Carolina.