Notes on seeing Barack Obama, August 21, 2008
This event was held at John Tyler Community College in Chester, VA, about 15 miles south of Richmond, halfway between Richmond and Petersburg. The nearest development is a classic strip mall. We pulled into the campus at about 9:40, showed tickets to security, and parked. There were about 20 or so McCain supporters there with their paraphernalia.
We were required to fill out the tickets (name, address, willingness to help the campaign) to get in. Noah and I were assigned to Table 8, behind where the speakers would be, but ended up at Table 9, with some faculty and staff from John Tyler, someone from the Chesterfield Democratic Party, and with a woman who works for Americorps in Richmond and is a huge volunteer with the campaign.
The event was set up amidst some trees. Two stools with bottles of the water were in the middle, with picnic tables surrounding the speaking area. The speaking area was roped off. The media had a section about 20 yards away from where the speakers were.
About 15 minutes before the event started, volunteers came around and told us what the plan would be, and requested that we stay sitting during the event until afterward.
The event started with a campaign worker giving a brief pep talk encouraging us to get involved and to sign up by cell phone to hear the VP announcement. Then a local minister gave a brief invocation, followed by our friend from Americorps leading a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance (there were two huge flags set up.)
During this time, numerous local politicians poured in—Bobby Scott, Doug Wilder, Dwight Jones—and the campaign bus rolled up as well, drawing applause. Virginia First Lady Anne Holton walked in and took a seat, drawing another round of applause.
The first substantive speaker to talk was someone from the campaign staff (I think) who talked about her experiences fending off homelessness. This opened the key theme, which was going to be economic security. She then introduced Tim Kaine and Barack Obama.
When Kaine and Obama came in, everybody was very excited and got up. Obama came by and shook everyone’s hand (including mine) and continued to do so for about 3-4 minutes. Then he said it was time to settle down, they had business to do.
Kaine spoke first and re-counted why he had been on board with Obama’s campaign from the beginning—famiilar spiel about need to change Washington, the failure of 8 years of Bush’s policies, etc. He said “risky” would be continuing to do same thing we’ve been doing and expecting any better, and electing someone who said they didn’t know much about the economy. Kaine said Obama represented excellence in government and that’s what the American people deserved; they shouldn’t have to settle for mediocrity. Kaine looked very comfortable up there and I thought that was a strong short speech (and that the pair looked good together).
Obama started off making some comments on the scenery and that he wanted to know where the potato salad and chicken were because it felt like a picnic. Then he started off by recounting what it was he had learned from being a presidential candidate for 17 months. He said 3 things:
- It’s a big country, and that we were “blessed to have this piece of real estate.”
- The American people are amazing, they really care about their communities and are involved. They are self-reliant and are not looking for a handout. They have shared common values
- However, the American people are worried about the present and even more so about the future.
Then he launched into a pretty strong populist attack on Bush’s economic record. He noted that family income had gone up $6,000 under Clinton, but had gone down $1,000 under Bush. He said the middle class felt sand moving under its feet. He said that people stretching to make ends meet had taken out additional home equity loans, which led to disaster because people in Washington weren’t paying attention. He said ordinary Americans need someone in the White House fighting for them.
Then he turned to an attack on McCain. After noting McCain’s “compelling personal story,” he said that no one disputes that McCain’s economic policies are the same as Bush’s. Then he jumped all over McCain’s comment that he didn’t know how many houses he owned. He said that McCain’s comment that the economy was in good shape made sense only because McCain is so removed from the experience of ordinary people. He also jumped on McCain’s comment defining the “rich” as people making over $5 million a year, as if someone making $3 million a year was simply middle class. And he jumped on Phil Gramm’s comments about economic troubles being simply “mental.”
I was impressed by his delivery of all this, which had a sort of sarcastic indignation to it. In fact, the intonation and delivery reminded me of some of the old Bill Cosby routines—the high pitched “can you believe how ridiculous this is?” tones with which key lines ere delivered.
Obama then turned to specific contrasts with McCain on a number of issues: taxes, health care, energy. He mentioned 95% of families would get tax relief under his plan; they would make health care available to everyone; he would launch an Apollo Project aimed at reducing dependency on foreign oil by 30%.
At some point he also launched into a critique of Republican’s campaign tactics. “The Republicans don’t know how to govern, but they do know how to politick and win elections” was the quote. He said that he was being subjected to negative scare tactics—lying about his religion, making stuff up in the recent book published by the Swift boat author. He said this was nothing new, every recent Democratic candidate had been subjected to it. These tactics work because people distrust the government so much. They see the government hasn’t accomplish much and say “a pox on both your houses.” And he is sympathetic to that point of view. People need a sense that in Washington you have someone who is going to listen to you.
He stressed that instead of making the election a referendum about Barack Obama, it should about the American people. “It’s not about me, it’s about you.”
Obama then took questions from the audience. The first was from a middle-age white woman who identified herself as a technical writer. She asked about Obama’s perceived inexperience on foreign policy and what he would do to overcome any such inexperience. Obama responded pretty straightforwardly: he’d shown good judgment about Iraq and McCain had not; he had excellent advisers (cited Nunn, William Parry) and that he’d be looking to both sides of the aisle for good advice; he would not walk into the White House unprepared.
The second question was from an African-American man who identified himself as a postal worker. He had two questions, one about what would be the top priority his first 120 days in office, the second about where he stood on privatizing the postal service.
Obama said sitting down with the generals and working on a responsible withdrawal plan from Iraq would happen on day one. He said the top domestic priority would be energy policy.
He then launched into a quite interesting explanation of why he opposes privatizing the postal service. Yes the postal service loses money on some transactions. But there is a public role in stitching everyone together, no matter where you live. What has made the postal system great is the idea of universal service. This principle applies to mail, telecommunications, roads. The problem with privatization is that non-profitable places get excluded. This doesn’t mean the postal service shouldn’t be looking at how to be more efficient—in fact he would call for an audit of every government program as President.
The third question came from a white woman identifying as a schoolteacher. The question was about No Child Left Behind. Obama said one of the main problems with No Child Left Behind was that the money to implement it was left behind. He said he supported accountability efforts but that schools that do a good job with poor children should not be punished on the basis of low test scores.
The fourth question was from a white male, 40-ish. After praising Obama’s campaign team He asked a question about what would happen with the grassroots organizations Obama has built if he became president.
Obama said that the organizations would still have a vital role to play in holding him and government accountable. He said it wouldn’t be like “okay, see you in 4 years.” He wants citizens to have an ongoing role. He said he would try to run the most transparent government possible and make information available to citizens and journalists.
The fifth questioner was an African-American woman. She noted Obama had stressed the middle class, but wanted to know, by midway through Obama’s first term, how the poorest voters would benefit from Obama’s presidency.
Obama responded by saying that what most poor people want is the opportunity to rise into the middle class. Most poor people work hard, without sick leave, health insurance, a pension, but they work hard. He cited the tax break plan, a number of things to benefit the elderly poor (such as extending mortgage benefits to those who don’t itemize their taxes), cutting out income taxes on social security. Then he talked about education and offering all high school graduates funding for college via tuition grants in exchange for community or national service. He didn’t really talk about wage raises as such.
Finally, the last questioner was a white bearded guy looking a little bit like a stereotypical academic (that would be me!) I started to talk before the mic came and Obama said “you’re not following the rules!” But then it came and I asked him as follows:
“Your friend Karl Rove recently made some comments about Richmond, to the effect that this wasn’t much of a town and that the fact that Gov. Kaine once led it is of no great significance. Do you have a response to that, and more generally, what would your administration do to make the job of people like Mayor Wilder a little bit easier?”
The question (like several of the others) drew some applause including from Gov. Kaine. Obama addressed the first part, saying that a politics of insult was part of the problem. We have to reject that and the politics of division. He said imagine if everyday life had the same ethics you see in politics and people were constantly being insulted. That’s unacceptable and we shouldn’t accept it.
He then said for cities the federal government first should live up to its stated funding commitments. He then went into a long discussion about the need to rebuild urban infrastructure. This included a pretty funny little rap about airplane travel and how ridiculous it is this country doesn’t have a good high-speed rail system. He said that in Beijing at the Olympics the whole world is getting to say how much they’ve invested in their infrastructure, which is now better than ours.
Then he closed by saying that much in politics is complicated, but some things come down to common sense and basic questions: who are you fighting for, why are you in politics in the first place. He said he would be fighting for the American people, with our help he could win Virginia and the election and change the country and the world.
The crowd then stood and applauded vigorously, and he came around for another long round of handshakes. I got to look him in the eye a little longer this time but couldn’t think of anything to say other than “thanks, Senator.” I then called out to his bodyguard/personal assistant Reggie Love, a former Duke basketball player, that Coach K was getting the job done at the Olympics. He smiled and said “yes, but let’s see how they do against Argentina.”
Obama then signed a bunch of collected items, and he and Kaine gradually disappeared back onto the bus. The crowd filtered away leaving the media behind to file their stories.