Barack Obama held his wife’s hand as they took the stage in St. Paul and turned to the crowd like he was taking in the sunshine off of all those rising sun logos they were wearing and waving. Before Obama and Michelle parted, they bumped fists like they were still backstage, sharing their last private moment.
Obama had come to the site of this summer’s 2008 GOP convention to end one campaign and start a new one. “Tonight, I can stand before you and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States,” he said, on the day exactly halfway between the Iowa caucuses he won five months ago and the general election that will be held five months from today.
He used the word change 16 times in his speech. He stole a little from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, and he even tried out a passage with an unmistakable echo of JFK: “Let us begin the work together. Let us unite in common effort to chart a new course for America.” It’s hard to differentiate the moments of applause from the crowd of 17,000 because they were so frequent and sustained. It’s likely the venue has not heard applause that loud at any Minnesota Wild game. When he promised that he would not use religion as a wedge, the Coke in the bottle next to my laptop rippled from the vibrations. (The 12,000 standing outside reportedly went just as bonkers into the balmy night.)
Obama spent a good deal of time on his opponent John McCain, whom the crowd first greeted with boos but switched quickly to cheers when Obama mentioned his military service. His critique, and the campaign’s strategy for the campaign, came down to a single passage: “John McCain has spent a lot of time talking about trips to Iraq in the last few weeks, but maybe if he spent some time taking trips to the cities and towns that have been hardest hit by this economy—cities in Michigan, and Ohio, and right here in Minnesota—he’d understand the kind of change that people are looking for.”
We’re going to see that kind of flip back to the economy for the next five months.
If Clinton didn’t work very hard to build unity, Obama did. He gave two paragraphs to Hillary Clinton, whom the crowd greeted with sustained applause. Obama praised the milestones in her career going back more than 20 years and promised that she would be a part of the important fights to come on health care, energy, and child poverty. It was not just praise for Clinton, but an attempt to revive the Clinton brand. All the work he’d done during the campaign running against the low motives of Clintonism were forgotten. She and her husband were selfless public servants again with an “unyielding desire to improve the lives of ordinary Americans, no matter how difficult the fight may be.”
Where do negotiations stand about Clinton’s campaign debt and her possible place on the ticket (which she appears to want)? On the plane flight from Chicago, top strategist David Axelrod claimed that “there had been no back-channel negotiations and no discussions.” After Obama’s speech, he called Clinton, left her a message congratulating her on her victory in South Dakota, and asked that she call him back.
The crowd that will gather for the Republican convention at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul certainly won’t look like the multicolored one that filled the venue for Obama on Tuesday night. They came in Dashikis, tattoos, T-shirts with Time magazine covers showing a smiling Obama, and in bright-yellow rain jackets. You had to bring foul-weather gear if you were going to come as early as some did—the weather could go through a few cycles while you waited. One couple had been waiting since 3 p.m. Another group of young women had tried to camp out the night before but had been turned away. They came back at 8 a.m., more than 12 hours before Obama was scheduled to speak.
They danced to Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin and chanted while they waited. They filled up on concession foods that normally feed hockey fans—chicken tenders, french fries, and nachos with dipping cheese that matched the color of their neon raincoats. An hour before Obama arrived, the Jumbotron overhead played occasional videos of Obama, one centered around his 2004 Democratic Convention speech. The crowd responded as if he were actually standing behind the podium. How young Obama looked back then, bouncing around on stage as he talked. He was more controlled tonight. Then, he was a guest at the party. Tonight, it became his party.