A testament to just how good Barack Obama is is how good he makes the other politicians on stage with him look. It's like he casts a glow that turns a conventional political tableaux – some stuffy old pols in folding chairs – into a scene washed in the light of a Caravaggio.
I just got back from hearing Obama speak at Seattle's KeyArena. He was joined on stage by three local politicians who are not exactly paragons of charisma: U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, and Gov. Chris Gregoire. Yet such was the atmosphere created by Obama's fans, and such was Obama's rhetoric, that he made all three seems like the best-lit back-up band a guy ever had. Obama, of course, was the real rock star.
But the pragmatic Smith seemed statesman-like when he made his introductory remarks. Nickels jazzed the crowd with his talk about global warming, and Gregoire brought down the house with her endorsement of the junior senator from Illinois. I can't imagine any of them have faced a more enthusiastic crowd, or ever looked better. Gregoire's cheeks glowed, and she exuded a joy that is often missing when she turns stern and delivers a lawyerly lecture. She even looked happy to be sharing the stage with Nickels, with whom she's battled. Obama took politicians who can make us cynical and burnished them bright before our very eyes.
The crowd was, in Obamaese, "fired up and ready to go." The arena on Friday, Feb. 8, was packed to the rafters with at least 18,000 (according to Nickels, who said he hoped the fire marshal wasn't around). Another 3,000, he said, were turned away – too bad since the luxury suites looked mostly empty. Long lines, far worse than anything you've experienced at Bumbershoot, snaked outside, the rope lines packed with Obamaphiles, mostly young people filled with a kind of pre-concert excitement.
When Obama entered, it was electric and loud. But he delivers such an unlikely mixture of messages. He plays to his Lincolnian roots – a tall, gangly man from Springfield, Ill., who has embarked on an unlikely mission. He delivers a high-minded sermon about hope and responsibility and public service, but it goes down so smooth you don't gag on stuffy communitarianism. And since when did the message of bipartisanship become so sexy?
Obama is at his least interesting when he's talking about what he'll do – affordable health care, ending the war in Iraq by the end of 2009 – and at his most compelling when he's weaving the context for his candidacy. He calls himself a "hopemonger" and stands against the cynicism of the politics of old. He says that we are at "a defining moment in our history" and uses that to create a sense of urgency not just for changing the world but for changing ourselves.
It's more subtle than Oprah, Martin Luther King, even John F. Kennedy. Certainly more subtle than the "I-feel-your-pain" Bill Clinton of 1992. It's a carefully crafted generational appeal that seeks both to imbue the young with a sense not simply that things are broken in America and need fixing but that they can't be unless we fix ourselves. Part of that fix is a renewed sense of the possible, a revitalized sense of shared responsibility. We must "challenge ourselves to be better," he says. It's not the soggy, self help of personal confession but the setting of a higher bar for all of us.
That has to be about the most wholesome, straightlaced message in politics in a generation or more. What amazes is how much power it seems to have. Obama promises to dissipate the "fog of fear" that has gripped this country and to lead differently. He criticizes Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York for accusing him of "peddling false hopes" and needing a "reality check." His reality is a bigger reality, not one of petty policy differences, partisanship, and cynical incrementalism.
The audience stays with him because it wants to be free, too, to see the spell of George W. Bush broken: the fog lifted, the constitution respected and obeyed, the Gitmos and gulags closed forever. Obama promises the end of the era of "Scooter Libby justice, Brownie incompetence, and Karl Rove politics." The kids roar with delight.
He's also building a new base for belief in government. The last transformational pol, Ronald Reagan, convinced everyone to accept that government was the problem, not the solution. Bill Clinton declared that the era of big government was over. Obama is sewing seeds with youth. Government is us, and it's a place to do good for each other. He touts a $4,000-per-year college tuition credit for students that has a string attached: You get the credit if you pay it back through public service. "We'll invest in you and you will invest in America." Government is no longer your savior or your enemy. It's what you make of it.
Excuse the baby-boomer reference, but Ward Cleaver couldn't have put it better. But unlike Obama, Ward's scoldings didn't make us stand up and cheer.
One question I've had about Obama: Is he the Seattle Monorail Project of presidential politics, the sexy idea that gets young people pumped up only to fall apart when the grown-ups find out how impractical it all really is? Many political observers are cynical, too, about Obama's strengths. Already, some liberal commentators have criticized his oratorical powers, saying he's too emotional, "fascistic" in the words of one commentator. Others have the Hillary worry – that he's a Pied Piper promising a transformation he cannot deliver.
Critics like these, Obama suggests, are people who would like to "boil the hope out of him," but he refuses to give up hope. He wouldn't be where he is if he had. He doesn't promise transformation so much as spell out what has to happen for it to occur. He offers the promise of himself in the effort and asks that everyone else do the same. It's a pretty practical plan, really, sold eloquently – hardly messianic.
In the momentary magic of a political rally, one can actually see the gleam of hope in the eyes of even the more worldly politicians of an older generation. One thinks: If Obama can light up these guys, we're half way home.
When you see hope do that, it's hard not to want all the cynics to step aside and let it run like hell. If the youth want to rebuild America on Obama's terms, why not let them try? Why not help? It's not like the old way of doing things has been working.
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