Obama’s Closing Argument

Watching Obama try to convince Pennsylvanians.

Read Part 1 of John Dickerson’s travels with Sen. Barack Obama over the weekend.

Barack Obama

READING, Pa.—Barack Obama said he’d come to Reading, Pa., two days before the state’s crucial primary to “deliver his closing argument.” For over an hour he spoke and took questions, but the words that will be remembered from the event were the ones he tossed off at the very end, almost in passing. “All three of us will be better than George Bush,” he said of the remaining presidential candidates. Since he’d been arguing that McCain would represent a disastrous third Bush term, this little slip muddied the closing argument he’d just given and offered Hillary Clinton an opportunity she would surely grab.

Clinton immediately performed her role in the pantomime. “We need a nominee who will take on John McCain, not cheer on John McCain, and I will be that nominee,” she said referring to Obama’s remarks. This is proof that you don’t have to be a member of the press to get accused of loving John McCain the wrong way. Those with a demitasse worth of recall will remember that by the Clinton standard she, too, has been a cheerleader for McCain. Not that long ago she claimed that while Barack Obama had not passed the “commander in chief test” necessary to become president, John McCain had. Bill Clinton also spoke highly of McCain recently.

The crowd of a couple thousand in the Reading High School gymnasium probably didn’t take note of Obama’s little slip about the GOP nominee. They seemed incapable of seeing any flaws in the man. Even by Obama standards, they were frenzied. A suit of armor representing the school mascot stood on a high platform at the back of the gym. When Obama walked in, the crowd cheered so loudly, I thought the thing would spring off its perch.

As Obama talked, people interrupted him with cheers and exclamations. Everything seemed to prompt an outburst. He told the audience about the 35,000 people who attended one of his recent rallies, and before he could describe the location, a woman screamed from the crowd “in Philadelphia.” When he mentioned that the campaign had been going on so long that some babies have been born and can now walk, parents thrust their children—even surprised toddlers—into the air. Because the gymnasium was filled with basketball hoops and because the proud parents vaulted their children with such gusto, they all looked like they were trying to heave their little darlings up to make a last shot before the buzzer.

Sometimes a passage of the speech that might not seem that exciting would cause a member of the crowd to stand up and wave and flap his arms like he’d been called to be a contestant on The Price Is Right. “This is a feisty crowd,” said Obama. “What did you all eat this morning?” This only encouraged them. Obama had to wait for the mayhem to subside before he could get back to his remarks.

It was, to quote Hillary Clinton, a “whoop-de-do” event.

Obama’s final argument, as articulated in Reading and later Sunday night in Scranton, is not that different from the argument he’s been making for months, with the notable exception of a passage now devoted to cutting Hillary Clinton down to size. Here’s how the speech goes:

Declaration of Independence: Obama says that the 35,000-person rally in downtown Philadelphia reminded him of the founders who gathered nearby and their improbable quest. “We have to stand up the way those founders stood up,” he says. “Now is our moment. This is our time.”

Why he’s running: Quoting Martin Luther King, Obama declares the “fierce urgency of now” before outlining America’s foreign and domestic problems. (Here he cites job loss statistics in the local area. Message: I know what the blue-collar voters I’m having trouble attracting are going through.) “In such circumstances we can’t wait,” he says.

We can’t fix anything until we change our politics: There are plenty of good solutions to our problems, but lobbyists block them. The cynical game in which politicians tear each other down is equally corrosive. In the Founders analogy, the special interests and cynics play the role of George III.

George Bush won’t be on the ticket: If anyone in the crowd has stopped being excited, this passage offers a chance for everyone in the audience to blow out whatever remains of their vocal chords.

But McCain will be on the ballot: Boos. “I respect his service,” says Obama. Applause. In Scranton late Sunday night, Obama asked: “You know what John McCain’s problem is?” An audience member yelled, “He’s too old.” Obama responded immediately: “No, no, that’s not the problem. There are a lot of wise people. …” That’s another assist for McCain—and also classy. Obama could have let that slide.

There is a choice in the primary: This is the Hillary-bashing section of the speech. Clinton is captive to the lobbyists whom she defends. Obama then runs through how her various evasions on NAFTA, Mark Penn and Colombia, and the Iraq war represent typical Washington cynicism. She will do and say anything to get elected, he charges. This long section bends (and sometimes breaks) his high-minded new politics message. Sensing this contradiction in Reading, he said, “Our campaign is not perfect, but you get elbowed enough, and you start to elbow back.”

Obama will tell people hard truths (unlike Hillary): 94.3 percent of the time Obama never really tells the audiences anything uncomfortable though he boasts that he will 100 percent of the time. What he promises them instead is to tell people they don’t like (auto executives and Wall Street fat cats) what those groups don’t want to hear. In Reading, however, Obama was a truth-teller. A local activist stood and asked what he would do to end the zero-tolerance policies for those who deal and use drugs in public housing. Obama could have wiggled around the question. Why tick off a local activist before election time? Instead he told the woman, “I’m sympathetic [to those who are evicted] but not that sympathetic.” If you want a break on public housing, you can’t mess with drugs, Obama told her. The audience loved it.

History of hope: As he concludes, Obama answers the criticism that his message of hope is naive with a tour through American history, citing the achievements—from ending slavery to equality for women—brought about by hope. “If those colonists had listened to the naysayers who say you can’t defeat the British, where would we be?” he asked the crowd in Scranton. Pointing to Caroline Kennedy, who introduced him in Scranton, he said, “When Caroline Kennedy’s father looked up at the moon, he didn’t say, ‘Oh that’s too far.’ “

The Obama pitch has been remarkably consistent over the months. Without notes, he can now produce it with very little deviation from stop to stop. Depending on how he does in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, he may finally get a chance to write a new speech.

Posted Monday, April 21, at 9:15 a.m.