Yes, He Can

COLUMBIA, S.C. – Barack Obama is angry. Oh, he’s in control, certainly, but you can tell he’s pissed.

After a week of increasingly bitter spats over race and underhanded campaign tactics, Obama’s victory speech sounded his usual themes – unity, change, past vs. future. But he also went after Hillary Clinton in more aggressive terms than in other speeches.

At first, he could have been speaking about Republicans: “We are up against decades of bitter partisanship that cause politicians to demonize their opponents instead of coming together to make college affordable or energy cleaner.” But then it became increasingly clear to whom he was referring: “It’s the kind of partisanship where you’re not even allowed to say that a Republican had an idea – even if it’s one you never agreed with.”

It’s one thing to invoke an opponent’s attack in a stump speech. It’s another to broadcast it to the country after delivering the most thorough trouncing of the election season . (Other descriptors overheard in the press section: “stomping,” “burial,” “bludgeoning.”) The point was not just to celebrate his victory, but to remind everyone that he won despite the Clintons’ skeevy tactics.

He also echoed Hillary’s claim that Obama promotes “false hopes.” Obama loves to portray her as a nay-sayer, the well-intentioned but over-the-hill has-been who simply lacks imagination. Tonight, he rooted this criticism in terms of regular people: “I know that when people say we can’t overcome all the big money and influence in Washington, I think of the elderly woman who sent me a contribution the other day – an envelope that had a money order for $3.01, along with a verse of scripture tucked inside. So don’t tell us change isn’t possible.”

Obama has slammed Hillary before, most notably in Monday’s debate, when he said he was working as a community organizer while she was “sitting on the board of Wal-Mart.” The blow landed, but Hillary’s riposte – a quip about Obama’s relationship with “slum landlord” Tony Rezko – landed harder. (Notice how we’ve been reading about Rezko all week long , but not a peep about Wal-Mart.) Even when Obama appeared to score a point, Hillary was one step ahead.

During tonight’s speech, though, there was no Clinton around to interject. It was a reminder of how much better Obama is at speechifying than debating. No ums, no stutters, no lurching starts and stops. If debates had 30-minute time limits instead of 30 seconds, the man would be unstoppable.

At the same time, Obama scored a few tactical points. After declaring that the forces of division are “not the fault of any one campaign”– translation: They are – he railed against “the assumption that African-Americans can’t support the white candidate; whites can’t support the African-American candidate; blacks and Latinos can’t come together.” The line wasn’t just a cheesy invocation of unity. It also pre-emptively repudiated the notion that Obama won South Carolina because of blacks alone. That he drew 25 percent of the white vote will make his case fairly easy.

Even more so than usual, the coming days will be a battle of perception. Obama’s camp will argue that South Carolina matters but Florida doesn’t. Clinton’s team will argue the opposite. Obama will suggest that we’re witnessing a battle for delegates, seeing as he has more than anyone. Clinton will suggest it’s actually states that matter. Trench warfare isn’t Obama’s strength. Even when he has fought back against Hillary, it’s been on her turf . But tonight, as over the past several days, he has shown himself willing to engage her – and able to win.