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Evolution of a candidate

Barack Obama at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul Tuesday night: He spoke with passion and authority.
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Barack Obama at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul Tuesday night: He spoke with passion and authority.

For all the attention rightfully paid to Barack Obama’s oratory skills since he first hit the national spotlight at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the biggest applause line of his career is also likely his simplest.

“Tonight, I can stand before you and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States,” he said Tuesday night at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul before an ovation like a jet engine drowned out the last few words.

Thanks to a certain New York senator’s concession to absolutely nothing earlier in the night, Obama required the bit of equivocation that came with the nod to the future. But the message was clear enough to everyone except the Clintons.

Tuesday’s appearance had the feeling of a victory party, with Obama finally locking down the nomination with a rush of superdelegates. But relief hung in the air as well, and Obama seemed to rein in his bright smile, appearing almost somber. He no longer played the prodigy, a rising star, but rather a leader whose time had finally come.

“America, this is our moment. This is our time,” Obama said toward the end of his speech, before warning. “The journey will be difficult. The road will be long.”

The Xcel was filled to the rafters, and supporters stood the entire time. In fact, it was not just Obama’s delivery and rhetoric that took on import, it was the reaction of the people in the house that delivered goose bumps. Throughout the campaign, Obama has often shown an uncanny ability to reach people, even touch people, something that can’t be denied even if you’re skeptical of the bouts of swooning that followed him on the hustings.

But the last six months have been anything but smooth and easy, and ever since his jaw-dropping speech in Des Moines the night he won the Iowa caucuses in January, The Natural has had to tweak and refine his image. First, there was the charge that he was not a man of substance. Then his message of “hope” and the “yes we can” movement became easily mocked.

Next we saw the tempered and important speech on race in the early stages of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright debacle. Then there was the “religion and guns” gaffe, coupled with a speech he gave where he brushed at his shoulders, trying to show how he deals with criticism. Somehow he became an elitist, rather than the voice of change for the people.

But suffice to say that Obama and his speechwriters, advisers and handlers have learned from it all, and Obama’s delivery Tuesday night was more self-assured and correctly paced than ever. In short, Obama the Candidate has grown.

“He’s remarkably similar to the Barack Obama I met three years ago at the Hilton Hotel,” Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said not long before Obama appeared Tuesday night. According to Obama’s own telling, Rybak said Obama should run for president when the two first met back then. Rybak was referring to Obama, the person, but what about Obama, the candidate? What have the last six months meant in that regard?

“He still has natural gifts, but clearly he’s brought it to a new level. He’s an even better speaker and a dramatically better debater,” Rybak said. “But he’s the same person. It’s that authenticity that makes him what he is.”

The campaign in Iowa
Back on Dec. 27 at the local high school in Marshalltown, Iowa, I saw Obama address about 300 supporters and fence-sitters in the school cafeteria. Truth be told, I was less than impressed. The best speech I saw during the week I chased candidates around for the caucuses belonged to John McCain, who was trailing even Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson in the polls. Something about McCain’s appearance earlier that day at the Mason City airport led me to believe that he would secure the Republican nomination.

Ironically, the “authenticity” in Obama that Rybak sees was nowhere to be found that day in Marshalltown, and Obama seemed oddly plastic compared to the frank and informal McCain. Dave Nagle, the former chair of the Iowa Democratic Party and a former U.S. congressman from Waterloo, had told me that Obama was in trouble. Obama wasn’t “getting out from behind the ropes,” in Nagle’s parlance.

What he meant was Obama wasn’t getting out from behind the podium and grabbing hands. He was stiff, cordial and scripted. In Iowa, where sitting down and having a cup of coffee at the local diner means more than all the issues combined, this could have been fatal.

In Marshalltown, Obama came in through a back door of the cafeteria, read from a laminated speech for roughly 20 minutes, took three questions and was gone.

“I have experience rooted in the real lives of real people,” he said at the outset, perhaps trying too hard to be regular folk. He talked about “steel workers’ rights, civil rights and children’s rights” to little effect.

One applause line was when Obama spoke of “bitter partisanship.” “We don’t need more heat, we need more light,” he said to cheers. He spoke of “the meaning of change, the meaning of hope” but never defined those meanings. Clearly, the candidate was working out some things. Or maybe I caught him on a bad day. Most of the undecideds I spoke to after the speech were still undecided.

Watching his Iowa victory speech on television just a few days later, I wasn’t sure it was even the same guy I had seen in Marshalltown.

The Target Center visit
Iowa was his pivotal moment, a stunning victory for him in a state that is almost all white. And the Obama myth and stature — already four years in the making — grew as he racked up delegates. By the time he came to Target Center in February, he was the cliché that fit: A rock star.

That some 20,000 folks lined block after block for hours on a cold Saturday to see a political speech should have signaled to the remaining doubters that something was going on. On that day, he came in with a swagger and humility that did not disappoint a surprisingly wide range of supporters.

“I don’t know if you guys are aware, but we’ve got a caucus on Tuesday,” he said to raucous applause, a wry posture not apparent in Iowa. He referred to “my cousin, Dick Cheney,” alluding to a report that the two actually shared some bloodline.

Obama was funny, and relaxed, and apparently keenly aware of the lack of substance charge. He spoke for an hour, and delved into detail about health care, the economy and especially Iraq, at one point referring to himself as commander in chief.

But he also offered the kinds of phrases that do, in fact, inspire and ring in the ears. “We will invest in you and you will invest back in America.” “Change doesn’t happen from the top; I cannot do it myself.” “This is not about tearing down, but about lifting up.”

He concluded with a flourish that he used often around that time, about how the change was going to come. “Block by block, precinct by precinct, city by city, and state by state.”

To call the Target Center speech uplifting — as it certainly was — would be to miss the point. It was also deep.

And Obama invoked two change agents of the past, John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, of course. He was introduced by Jane Freeman, the widow of former Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman, who also served as agriculture secretary under JFK. The former first lady invoked the long-ago days of Camelot, and said that Obama reminded her of those heady days.

Obama himself referenced JFK, and, more pointedly, MLK. “I am running because of what Dr. King called ‘the urgency of now.'”

In Marshalltown, Obama had said, “Hope has been the guiding force behind the most important change in this country.” He then went on to list examples like the Revolutionary War, the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement.

After the near kiss-of-death his former pastor, the Rev. Wright, delivered — fomenting racial politics at a time when Obama could least afford it — the latter two references would not be spoken Tuesday night. And not a word about Dr. King either.

Clinton battle a boon

Let it be said that Tuesday’s appearance at Xcel was a triumph in every way. For starters, the notion that Obama would come to St. Paul, the site of the Republican National Convention some 90 days from now, was a stroke of genius on someone’s part. It had the effect of marking some kind of territory, and Republicans went batty at the notion.

The RNC committee put out a press release that offered this lame dig: “The Xcel Energy Center hasn’t hosted anyone who skates and flips as much as Senator Obama since the U.S. Figure Skating Championships were in town and the Minnesota Wild were eliminated from the hockey playoffs.” And Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Tim Pawlenty mumbled something at a press conference about Obama being the most liberal U.S. senator and his values being outside “the mainstream.”

Perhaps. But anyone who can draw a crowd that fills a hockey arena while thousands more are turned away at the door must be resonating with someone.

The scoreboard at the Xcel was tuned to MSNBC early in the evening, and the cable network aired a surprisingly flat speech from McCain, live from New Orleans. The McCain from Iowa was nowhere to be found.

By contrast, Obama’s speech was notable for its passion and authority — even though it was every bit as scripted as McCain’s. “While John McCain can legitimately tout moments of independence from his party in the past,” Obama said, “such independence has not been the hallmark of his presidential campaign.”

He offered generous remarks about Hillary Rodham Clinton at a time when people at the X probably didn’t even want to hear her name.

“Senator Hillary Clinton has made history in this campaign not just because she’s a woman who has done what no woman has done before, but because she’s a leader who inspires millions of Americans with her strength, her courage, and her commitment to the causes that brought us here tonight,” Obama said, acknowledging some “differences” the two have had on the campaign trail. “Our party and our country are better off because of her, and I am a better candidate for having had the honor to compete with Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

And that is distinctly true. For all the hand-wringing about Clinton’s refusal to leave the race, and about how it would signal to the country that the Democrats were deeply divided, Obama is most certainly a better campaigner than he was six months ago.

And, if in fact Clinton does get out of the picture, McCain and Obama are both quite capable of having a meaningful debate about the future of the country, as both have noted. Voters might actually benefit from this presidential campaign, a rare moment in recent elections.

“In just a few short months, the Republican Party will arrive in St. Paul with a very different agenda,” Obama said, without acknowledging that he got there first. “They will come here to nominate John McCain, a man who has served this country heroically.  I honor that service, and I respect his many accomplishments, even if he chooses to deny mine.  My differences with him are not personal; they are with the policies he has proposed in this campaign.” 

Obama’s speech was relatively light and snappy, clocking in at around 30 minutes, and punctuated by waves of applause, chants and cheering usually reserved for sporting events.

That Obama can speak and inspire is uncontested, and he showed that Tuesday night. Whether he can win the presidency remains to be seen, but at this point, it’s his to lose. At the very least, Obama is going to lean heavily on uniting, not dividing.

“In our country, I have found that this cooperation happens not because we agree on everything, but because behind all the labels and false divisions and categories that define us; beyond all the petty bickering and point-scoring in Washington, Americans are a decent, generous, compassionate people, united by common challenges and common hopes,” he said at one point, echoing a theme he’s had from the beginning. “And every so often, there are moments which call on that fundamental goodness to make this country great again.”

At the end of what pundits immediately declared a “historic” moment not just for Obama but for the country, Michelle Obama came out to bask in St. Paul with her husband. The two waved and smiled. Then Barack whispered to Michelle, and the two paused for a beat. Then he said something only a lip-reader could know, and only she could hear: “Let’s go.” And the two left the stage. 

G.R. Anderson Jr., a former reporter and senior editor for City Pages, covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.

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