I spent Tuesday night at a pep rally for Barack Obama in Richmond, and it reinforced two of my perceptions about him: 1) He is a formidable candidate and 2) He doesn’t think fighting terrorism is a big deal.
Before and after the speech, I spoke to some of the roughly 500 attendees who jammed a sweltering art gallery in an industrial part of Richmond to see Obama at this low-dollar fundraiser hosted by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine. While some came merely out of curiosity, the committed supporters were almost universal in their reasons for why they found Obama appealing. They described him as “authentic,” “comfortable in his own skin,” and saw him as a “breath of fresh air” who could bring people together. When I asked his supporters about Hillary Clinton, they described her either as too calculating, too polarizing, smart but unelectable, or too representative of the past. Obama did not disappoint the crowd, entering and exiting to a rock star reception, exhibiting his charisma and sense of humor, and coming across as intelligent and down to earth.
In his speech, Obama touched on his days as a community organizer and repeated his call for a new kind of politics to address the nation’s biggest challenges. What I found most telling was not the problems that he cited, but the big one he omitted. He mentioned healthcare, education, income inequality, energy, global warming, and of course, the biggest of all, the Iraq War. But the ‘T’ word was conspicuously absent. In a speech to a general audience, he may have thrown a bone to hawks by saying something along the lines of “the terrorist threat is grave, but Bush is going about fighting it the wrong way,” or talked about the need to secure our ports, fight the real terrorists in Afghanistan, etc. It was pretty clear, however, that in speaking to a group of Democratic supporters, he didn’t feel the need to mention the threat of terrorism, which reinforces my impression that he simply doesn’t think it’s that big of a deal. The refrain of his speech was “it’s time to turn the page”–which he applied to domestic issues as well as withdrawing from Iraq and transforming our foreign policy through better diplomacy. He also called for the closing of Guantanamo. To paraphrase Rudy, Obama sounded very much like a candidate who wants to take us back to playing defense against terrorism.
I also found it interesting that, for all his talk about wanting to bring people together, when speaking to a partisan audience, Obama was not shy about taking swipes at the president and Republicans. “I started teaching at the University of Chicago law school, because unlike the current occupant of the White House, I thought it would be interesting to find out what the Constitution says,” Obama told the crowd. He also said: “When things don’t work, when the death toll in Iraq mounts or Katrina happens, then they try to distract people from what’s really taking place. And they blame somebody. They blame the other party. Or they blame Congress. Or they blame gay people. Or they blame immigrants.”
I see the AP played up the fact that Obama drastically overstated the death toll from the Kansas tornadoes as 10,000, when he meant at least 10. I don’t think it’s worth making an issue out of what was obviously an honest mistake.