Thursday, February 22, 2007

Obama's Des Moines Town Hall Event

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 697

As promised, I dropped by Senator Barack Obama’s town hall event at the Polk County Convention Center in Des Moines last night. Since I work in downtown Des Moines, and my office is a short way from the convention center and both are connected via the Skywalk, it will probably be the easiest commute I’ll have to any campaign event this election cycle.

The event was scheduled to begin at 7:45 PM, with doors scheduled to open at 6:45. I got there after work around 6:00, and while several dozen people were there already, I was the first person to actually get in line to go in. Note to future event attendees: it doesn’t make much sense to get there early unless you get in line!

The doors actually opened at around 6:20. The venue was enormous, like an airplane hanger, filled with seats. The seating was segregated by ticket color; once again, there were blue and red tickets not available to the general public. I asked several campaign volunteers where and how one could obtain something other than the general admission white tickets, and none of them knew, either. This, along with the consulting salary paid to Tom Vilsack by MidAmerican Holdings, may be one of the biggest mysteries of the entire campaign so far.

After a little shifting around, I ended up about six rows back from the stage, which proved to put me about 40 feet away from Obama for most of the event. Not bad, considering that, alas, lots of others probably needed binoculars to see him clearly.

I must say the event got off to a slightly weird start. The usual introductions were made, first by the Polk County Democratic Party chairman, then local Congressman Leonard Boswell (who also did emcee duty at Hillary’s town hall in Des Moines last month – he’s certainly keeping his options open), then a local activist and schoolteacher. The schoolteacher speaks the usual “please welcome Barack Obama” cue…the crowd rises to its feet as one…all eyes swing toward the entrance…wild cheering…booming music…and…then….nothing. No one. Barack does not appear. Thirty seconds pass. A minute. The cheering falters. Two minutes. Applause gives way to impatient rhythmic clapping. An announcement from the stage that Obama will be there in a couple minutes more.

Obama finally arrives, of course, to undiminished enthusiasm. Audible sighs of relief from the campaign staff. He explains that he had been speaking to his daughters on the phone. Gooshy “oooh”s and “awwww”s from the crowd, and Barack quickly goes on to hit his stride. Referring to the scale of the night’s event, Obama promised many additional returns to Iowa, with the opportunity for retail politicking Iowans have come to expect. He then made opening remarks concerning health care, education, energy and the war, and opened the floor for questions.

Although much was made by both Obama and his introducers of the tough questions Iowans ask at these events, the overwhelming majority of questions were softballs, served up to be easily hit out of the park. At one point, an audience member addressed his question to “President Obama,” to which the candidate replied, “President Obama – I’ll claim that!” (just as an aside, imagine the cries of unpardonable arrogance and hubris that would have roared up at such a statement if it had been made by, say, Hillary Clinton). And, as in the Hillary kickoff last month, the audience was surprisingly reticent on Iraq. Barack spoke about the war at a number of points throughout the night, but little or nothing on the topic originated with the audience. I’m still wrestling to try to understand why this is.

This event presented an interesting contrast between Barack Obama delivering a prepared speech versus extemporizing in a Q&A setting. Overall, he seemed at ease, if ever-so-slightly rhetorically diminished, in dealing with the questions from the audience. His answers and delivery were smooth, and the experience of seeing the candidate occasionally pause for thought before answering a question was refreshing and humanizing in a way that Obama’s campaign must find very satisfying.

How well did Barack Obama do last night? The answer depends on your assessment of the challenges faced by his campaign. If you believe that the key to success for Obama rests in continuing to show up in front of throngs of curious voters and adulatory supporters, to keep building name recognition and reinforce his image as a dynamic and eloquent campaigner, then he did very well. If you believe that Obama needs to supplement his established image by demonstrating greater passion for solutions and for the prospect of becoming President in order to implement those solutions, he did less well. And if you believe that evidence of potential Presidential leadership ability based on past or current performance is what’s needed to ultimately elevate Barack Obama from political celebrity into the realm of electoral inevitability, then the candidate still has a long road ahead of him.

In other words, the higher your expectations for this event, the less satisfying the result is likely to have been. This is no condemnation of Barack Obama or his campaign. If anything, it is confirmation that a first-time candidate for president with less than three years tenure in national office might benefit from taking his initial steps in smaller gatherings, with less media and public attention, to hone his pitch, and frankly, allow himself the freedom to make mistakes in settings that won’t be instantly televised and webcast around the world.

There’s no denying that a campaign trying to build momentum in counterweight to the aura of inevitability that the Clinton campaign is working hard to create might find taking a small step out of the limelight for a period of time to be painful. But all candidates make mistakes, all campaigns need to establish their rhythm, and Barack Obama is no exception. The smart thing would be to recognize this, understand that we’re still nearly a year out from the caucus, and leverage this small window of opportunity to tune up the campaign and the candidate in preparation for the rigors to come.


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