Waiting for the Flood

Barack Obama the day before the last primaries.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand
Barack Obama

Sitting with the crowd waiting for Barack Obama to arrive in the gymnasium at Troy High School in Troy, Mich., I listened to a parade of local officials like they were about to introduce the man everyone was waiting for. The crowd started to applaud a little louder, the kids got up on tiptoe, but then the fuss turned out to be for just another local politician. Everyone sat back down. This yo-yo act started to get tired after a little while, perhaps because it was an echo of the Democratic race: preliminaries that delayed the main event.

Finally, however, Obama’s supporters don’t have long to wait. By tomorrow or the next day, he will be the party’s presumptive nominee. He’s had to work like hell for that simple word presumptive, and, after another drubbing in Puerto Rico, he’s not exactly sprinting across the finish line. Still, all the signs seem to point to an ending of this 147-day stage of the presidential race. Top Clinton supporters like Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Ed Rendell are inching away from their candidate, Clinton staffers are sending out personal contact information the way people do before they’re about to be out of a job, and even Bill Clinton is getting wistful on the stump. “This may be the last day I’m ever involved in a campaign of this kind,” said the former president in Milbank, S.D.

Obama advisers are showing no sign of worry that Clinton is serious about taking her fight all the way to the nomination. Tomorrow they expect a flood of superdelegates to finally put Obama over the edge.

Throughout the day, rumors spread that Obama and Clinton had cooked up a deal to choreograph her departure Tuesday night. The Obama campaign knocked down the idea that negotiations were going on but in the vague way that does little to suggest they’re not. In fact, minutes after an Obama spokesman suggested he hadn’t brought up the issue of how the two would come together after the nomination was finished, the candidate himself told reporters that he had told Clinton Sunday night that he looked forward to “meeting her at a time and place of her choosing” to talk about the way forward.

In anticipation of the coming end, Obama spoke warmly about his former opponent, praising Clinton’s determination and promising the two of them would be united for the general election. Obama spoke for nearly an hour, and though he doesn’t campaign as often without a tie as he used to—that won’t do when you’re trying to look presidential—he did seem loose. He offered one questioner his microphone, rather than waiting for her to receive one reserved for the audience, and did a little soft-shoe shuffle as he made his way over to her. At another moment, he offered to come kiss two audience members when he learned they were 98 and 95.

Wearing the flag pin that he once eschewed, Obama explained that what will unite all Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, will be the specter of a McCain administration. He criticized his Republican opponent on everything from the Iraq war to the gas-tax holiday. Obama immediately followed his critique with a promise not to tear down his opponents. The audience saw no contradiction, applauding this sentiment even more loudly than the McCain bashing that had preceded it.

Obama’s remarks focused heavily on economic matters, an attempt to pull the conversation back to turf his aides think he’s particularly strong on. “This election is not going to be like 2004,” says a top adviser. “It’s going to be about the economy.” Talking about the economy also helps Obama out of the national security tussle he’s been in with McCain for the last two weeks.

After the local politicians got their chance at the podium, the honor of introducing Obama went to an unemployed woman, and the candidate took the chance to say that she has woes John McCain wouldn’t understand. Voters, particularly those at the lower end of the income scale, have wondered if Obama understands their problems; Obama’s response seems in part to be that whatever they may think about him, John McCain is even more out of touch.

The McCain campaign didn’t address the criticism, exactly, but instead argued that by talking about the economy, Obama was running away from talking about Iraq. They would prefer to have every day’s news cycle consumed with talk of international issues. “Every day we talk about foreign affairs is a winning day for us,” said one top McCain adviser.

I first saw Barack Obama announced to a crowd as a presidential candidate in a nearly identical venue several months ago, standing at the end of another basketball court in Columbia, S.C. Then, he was a long shot. He has since lost a cigarette habit, his church membership, and maybe a little of his innocence—in the early days, he barely even attacked George Bush. And he’s gained a necktie, a flag pin, and the Democratic nomination.