Laconia, NH -
Tuesday night, just before Thanksgiving, was dark, cloudy and cold. The inch and a half of snow on the ground from that morning’s flurries, bright and reflective in my headlights, was all that kept the small state highways East of I-93 in North Central New Hampshire from being dangerously invisible. In other words, for all intents and purposes, winter had reared its ugly head here in the Granite State.
In the place that holds the first-in-the-nation primary, winter historically means crunch time. When you think of the iconic moments of the NH Primary, you don’t think of beautiful summer days on the stump in rural hill towns and seacoast lobster bakes. You think of candidates shaking hands in the snow on city streets and outside of factories, of Ed Muskie allegedly crying in the sleet. When you think of the history of the New Hampshire Primary, you think of winter.
So I found it a little ironic that my first snowy event of the year would coincide with the one candidate who, more than anyone else, establishes himself as the purveyor of the new style of politics. The crusty old snowy primary victories of Al Gore and Richard Nixon, if you’ll believe Obama, ought to come to an end. Washington’s game plan is passe, and a fresh start is long overdue.
If that was the case, then on Tuesday night new met old when the Barack Obama faithful, clad in parkas and wool hats, walked through the gauntlet of advocacy groups standing outside the main entrance to the local middle school and squished into a gymnasium made hot by the cluster of bodies in direct opposition to the cold night air.
The crowd’s chatter was already loud by the time I arrived at 7:45PM for the 8 o’clock event, and the seats were full with nothing but stragglers still walking through the door and looking for a place to tuck in among their friends and neighbors. I set up shop at a table in a roped off area designated for the media, where I would be spoiled with my own electrical outlet and campaign-provided wireless internet. New politics, indeed.
I sat and waited, snapped a few photos of the scene, and then at 8:08 the traveling press came in like the torrent of a dry creek newly flowing with spring rainfall, rushing toward me from the back of the gym looking for the most direct route to get prime position on the press riser.
Within seconds of my noticing their arrival, Paul Hodes, one of New Hampshire’s US Representatives and an early Obama endorser, bounded into the center of the room, took the mic and immediately sought to charge up the crowd. He quickly went through his remarks, handed off to another local politician to say a few more things, and then cue the music for the main event.
The crowd began to rhythmically clap to summon the Senator, and within moments Obama walked on the stage. With his slim figure and smooth voice, which the Red State Update folks recently called “loud”, Obama read from his list of local dignitaries to thank for their presence and, once he was through with that, did something fairly unusual out on the campaign trail. He thanked his field organizers, his interns, and the volunteers who were doing the grunt work to make his campaign successful. These are the people, after all, who make sure the gyms are full when the candidate comes to town.
Obama then ran through the things people in the audience can help. He implored them to fill out supporter cards, become precinct captains, and be a part of something bigger.
The candidate then recounted how when he moved to Chicago after law school “to help steelworkers that had been laid off, it was the best education I ever had because it taught me that people can get together to do great things.”
But before he passed the buck too heavily onto the audience, he gave us a prediction.
“I intend to be so dazzling tonight,” Obama boasted with a grin, “that all of you feel compelled to give all your organizing cards to the organizer.”
With that, he went into his stump speech where he says that people tell him they are taking an interest in his campaign because they want an end to the Bush admin, and are tired of the way things work in Washington.
“We don’t need someone who can play the game better,” he tells us. “we need someone who can end the game plan.”
In addition to a brief overview of his policies, and a touch on the relevant political issues of the day, Obama inferred that people don’t want government to solve their problems, but instead “with all the taxes you’re paying” to merely knock down some barriers.
He brings up the experience question in a negative frame. When people in Washington tell him he needs more time in office, Obama suggests it is because “they want to stew me and season me a little bit and boil all the hope out of me. No thanks.”
This invariably leads to his incredulously bringing up the slurs of “hope monger” and “hope peddler.” Such is the hard knock life for Barack Obama among the pundits he describes.
Ultimately, Obama says he has four attributes that qualify him for the Presidency.
1) Experience of bringing people together to get things done
2) Knowing how to stand up to the special interests
3) The ability to stand up for what they believe in even when its not popular
4) A sense of impatience
None of it, however, stands up to Obama’s main theme, that it is about something larger than himself, and he is just a medium through which the desires of the many are accomplished.
“I want to lead,” Barack said, “but I can’t do it myself. I will not be a perfect president but here is what I can guarantee: I will always tell you what I think. I will always tell you where I stand. I will listen to you even when we disagree. I will wake up in the White House every single morning thinking about how I can make your lives just a little bit better.”
He said that to a standing ovation, but only mixed smiles. It is an uplifting message, but tonight it wasn’t exactly earth shatteringly profound or powerful. People were still standing and applauding when Obama spoke into the microphone over the noise to announce that he would be sticking around to answer any questions people had.
But a funny thing happened while he answered questions about homeland security, nuclear disarmament, and the farm bill. People started slowly trickling out of the gym. Fifteen minutes into the Q&A session, the amount of empty chairs became embarrassingly noticeable. When a pack of fifteen all bolted at once, Obama called them out, and encouraged them to fill out the volunteer cards on their way out the door.
Sensing a lost audience Obama hurried to finish the night, saying that a staffer told him he had time to answer one more question. Obviously, he insisted on two. As is so often the case with political rallies, the questions weren’t short. While all of the journalists, some of the voters, and presumably the candidate himself hoped that the event would find its glad tidings for the evening it just didn’t happen.
To make matters worse, Obama went out of his way at the very end to touch on a few talking points for social security policy. Did he think that the voters cared so deeply about social security that he needed to go over it? Did his handlers work him over so much that he felt obligated to mention the issue at every event no matter what? Or is he just such a wonk that he couldn’t let the night slip by without what he felt was a crucial issue?
All of those things were floating through my mind as I looked down at my cell phone to see the display light showing 9:40PM. I also made a last ditch effort to count the empty chairs in the gym, and stopped at a hundred. A quick internet search showed that the 9 o’clock network offering on the boob tube included a new episode of House. Maybe that is why people left early.
Then again, as I pondered it over Thanksgiving break, maybe these days most people just don’t have more than an hour long attention span for politics. After all there must be a reason why the debates have been whittle down to 60-second sound bytes and campaign commercials have the ability to give a candidate a five to ten point bounce with every significant media buy. The more you talk, the more you risk.
But maybe that is the cynicism Obama is trying to slay. Those who stayed for the full hour and a half, about seventy five per cent of the original crowd, were still buzzing a little on the way out the door. A few dozen lingered on the bleachers to discuss the night’s events and give their impressions of their candidate.
As I walked back up the snowy street two blocks to my car, a group of high school kids drove by me with their heads shoved out the windows yelling “Ready to go! Fired up!” at me and whoever else would listen. Obama’s new politics may not be one-size fits all, but there is no doubt that those who pick up on the message hear it loud and clear.