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Obama talks substance; media yawns

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February 19 must have been a strange day for Barack Obama.

Over the course of a single day, Obama faced accusations that he’d plagiarised a few stump-speech talking points from his friend, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick; that his wife, Michelle, was an unpatriotic ingrate for telling a Milwaukee audience, “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country”; and that he’d backpedaled from a joint pledge with John McCain to accept public funding in the general election campaign. And, just to ensure that this string of headaches turned into a full-blown migraine, State Senator Kirk Watson, one of his strongest Texas supporters, embarrassed himself in a live interview with Hardball host Chris Matthews when he couldn’t name a single legislative accomplishment by Obama.

Thankfully for Obama, February 19 was also the day that he moved from narrow frontrunner to the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination with blowout victories over Hillary Clinton in the Wisconsin primary and Hawaii caucuses.

Those election results were still hours away when Obama landed in San Antonio for the launch of his Texas campaign. The biggest question that has hovered over his candidacy is whether his inspirational oratory is matched by substance, whether his broad promise of change includes a concrete platform of policy positions. It’s what Clinton refers to when she frames this election as a choice between “speeches and solutions,” and what John McCain alludes to when he decries “eloquent but empty” rhetoric.

With that in mind, Obama’s Tuesday, February 19, visit to San Antonio felt like a concerted effort to put some flesh on the bones of his change mantra. If his rallying cry has been “Yes we can,” his SA stop told us, “and here’s how we plan to do it.”

It’s telling that both Clinton and Obama used their SA visits to shore up demographic weaknesses. Aware that she wasn’t reaching young people, Clinton appeared at St. Mary’s University. Mindful that many Latinos feel a deeper connection to Clinton, Obama came to the heart of SA’s West Side, for a roundtable at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and an outdoor Town Hall gathering at the adjacent Plaza de Guadalupe.

Clinton had filled St. Mary’s basketball arena a week before with an old-fashioned, strike-up-the-band rally, but Obama went for something smaller and more interactive. He began the half-hour, media-only roundtable by calmly striding onto the Guadalupe stage to make a quick statement about America’s mortgage-foreclosure crisis before taking a seat between four local residents affected by predatory-lending policies.

He instantly apologized for his raspy voice, saying, “I’ve been in colder weather for the last few weeks.” In his characteristic manner, he applauded Clinton’s attempt to provide a solution to the problem, while politely arguing that a central part of her plan — freezing rates on existing adjustable-rate mortgages for five years — “will drive rates through the roof on people who are trying to get new mortgages.”

For the most part, Obama spent the roundtable listening, intensely concentrating as Rebecca De Zavala, a 57-year-old registered nurse threatened with foreclosure, talked about her lending institution losing her payments, and asking Teresa Molina, a 50-year-old parent to six foster children, whether mortgage pressures had limited her ability to continue purchasing needed medication. (He referenced Molina at his Austin debate with Clinton two days later.)

This Obama was not the rousing messiah of hope who so fascinates political analysts and befuddles Clinton strategists. He was a low-voltage, nuts-and-bolts policy wonk, carefully outlining a comprehensive plan of legislative attack: a $10 billion foreclosure-prevention fund, a home-score system to help borrowers decide if they can afford a home, penalties for predatory lenders, tax credits for struggling homeowners, etc.

A few minutes after the roundtable ended, with an exuberant crowd waiting for the town-hall gathering, one photographer turned to another and said: “That was boring as hell. I was waiting for some excitement and thought, ‘That’s it?’”

It might not be fair to attach one jaded photographer’s sentiments to the actions of the national media, but it doesn’t take long on the campaign trail before you realize that the same members of the press who raise concerns about a lack of substance swiftly grow bored with policy minutiae and prefer to dwell on the horse race. To the credit of the Town Hall audience, however, every single question directed at Obama dealt with policy, without a single boxers-or-briefs distraction.

Obama gracefully walked a thin line at the Town Hall, breaking down the tax code one minute and lifting spirits with his calls for a moblized electorate the next. After taking time to address the thousands of shut-outs who lined the nearby streets, he sauntered into the plaza to the strains of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” Most of his speech tread familiar ground and varied little from his televised, election-night speech in Houston a few hours later. But the off-the-cuff feel of the Town Hall event produced a few funny ad-libs.

He teased a girl in the front row for calling a friend on her cell phone, and after reciting a litany of complaints from Clinton that he’s peddling false hope, he added: “She calls me a hope-monger. OK, she didn’t say hope-monger, I made that up.” At the Houston rally, he included the exact same riff, but left out the hope-monger joke, possibly cautious about how it would play with a television audience.

Like John Kennedy in 1960 and Bill Clinton in 1992, Obama has honed his response to concerns about his youth. “People want to boil all the hope out of me, and then maybe I’ll be ready in 30 years,” he said with a laugh.

On March 4, Texas will say a lot about whether he has to wait that long.


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