Denver–It was hovering all week. Whispered over drinks at the after-parties that have gone into the early-mornings. It’s been floated by those having their first cup of coffee in the well-heeled corridors of the Brown Palace and the Ritz and during impromptu lunches in the restaurants on the 16th Street Mall. It was a feeling in the gut among many Democrats assembled here that perhaps they’d made the wrong pick when they could least afford it. Had they gone with their hearts in selecting Sen. Barack Obama when the path to victory might have been with the safer choice — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton,
Those of us who’ve bought homes–I’ve owned three in three different cities — know the feeling of buyer’s remorse. It must be universal. No mater how passionate you are about your initial choice. It’s that feeling, walking into your new home, seeing it forlorn and empty, all the cracks and scuffs revealed, that make you think, no matter how briefly, that you’ve made a bad decision, that you should have bought the other place, or even never have bought at all. And now you’re stuck.
This was exacerbated by Clinton’s spirited speech on Tuesday night that aimed to unify the party– but also offered a glimpse of what could have been. She offered a kind of clarity of purpose in fighting for those in need. We knew the causes this woman had fought for and would continue to fight for. She was a known commodity.
Entering his speech tonight, one could argue that Obama remained a murky figure for many Americans–a person painted as a great orator without the experience or heft to do more than inspire. Since Obama’s whirlwind trip overseas, the McCain campaign has done what Republicans have done best: Turn a candidate’s great strength into his great weakness. Yes, they said, he’s popular and well-spoken, but could he lead? Through this week, little was done to explain fully who Obama was. Yes, Michelle Obama and the kids had been darling Yes, Sen. Joe Biden laid out the party’s commitment to its blue-collar constituency. But by Thursday evening, if ever a man was in need of self-definition, it was Obama.
On Thursday night, simply put, Obama retook his story and grabbed with both hands the direction of the campaign. When he stood before the 84,000 at Invesco Field in Denver, he did so as as a progressive pragmatist, someone willing to hit back with full force in defense of his patriotism and ideals and the things he plans to do should he win in November. To those undecided, he reminded them of everything they lost and suffered during the eight years of the Bush administration and how closely McCain has been willing to follow that tattered playbook. He methodically explained his plan for change– everything from health care to the tax system to his plans for restoring the United States leadership abroad. Meshing jokes and serious directives with the kind of eloquence that drew millions to his cause, Obama showed his fellow Democrats why he won the nomination and why they should be confident following him in the weeks and months to come.
“I was amazed,” said Cliff Young, 71, a retired schoolteacher from Denver. “He gave me direction, hope for a strong United States, a strong work ethic — I thought it was all there There’s that deep-belly fire I saw in him. He’s very committed to what he’s saying. The heart of this country is the middle class, and for eight years they’ve been let down. It wasn’t just what he said, but how he said it. You don’t practice that. It’s just there.”
Going into his address, even Debbie Dingell, super-delegate from Michigan and member of the Democratic National Committee said, “Tonight for what has to happen is a nuts-and-bolts speech. He has to give a detailed, more nuts-and-bolts specific speech that tells us what a Barack Obama White House would look like and what policies he would implement. He needs to talk about the economy, about getting out of the war in Iraq and what he plans to do with Afghanistan.”
At approximately 8:11 local Mountain time in his own Western setting, surrounded by thousands of people in the open air it was time for Obama to define why he should be the man chosen to lead this country into the next stage of American political life. Following a stirring biographical film made by the director of “An Inconvenient Truth,” Obama stood before more than 70,000 people and tactically began his moment of self-definition, first by acknowledging the campaign of his arch rival.
Then Obama proceeded to outline the problems as another insipiring young senator, John F. Kennedy once did, saying that “for 232 years, at each moment when that promise was in jeopardy, ordinary men and women – students and soldiers, farmers and teachers, nurses and janitors — found the courage to keep it alive. We meet at one of those defining moments – a moment when our nation is at war, our economy is in turmoil, and the American promise has been threatened once more.
“Tonight,” Obama said, “more Americans are out of work and more are working harder for less. More of you have lost your homes and even more are watching your home values plummet. More of you have cars you can’t afford to drive, credit card bills you can’t afford to pay, and tuition that’s beyond your reach. These challenges are not all of government’s making. But the failure to respond is a direct result of a broken politics in Washington and the failed policies of George W. Bush. America, we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this.”
And then came the attack. Mixing in humor and folksiness, as he had in town halls across America, he went after McCain, not Obama, as the candidate for presidency being the one who was out of touch. Widening his focus, he struck directly at the trickle-down economic principles that have defined the Republican economic model since Ronald Reagan took the oath of office in 1981. And then, in a direct response to McCain’s attempt to define him as a celebrity, Obama reminded the American people of his own humble beginnings, of his American story — deemed the “upward climb” by the founders, as the historian David McCullough wrote
But, perhaps most important, as if he was speaking directly to Dingell’s sentiment, Obama, stepping away from more grand rhetoric, Obama said, “Let me spell out exactly what that change would mean if I am president.” He talked of ending tax breaks to corporations sending jobs overseas while eliminating capital gains taxes for small businesses; and extending tax cuts for working and middle-class families. He spoke directly about how he would change the dependence of foreign oil within 10 years through clean coal, safe nuclear power and new sources of renewable energy that would create more jobs, as well as his plans to create universal health care.
“Now, many of these plans will cost money,” Obama said, “which is why I’ve laid out how I’ll pay for every dime – by closing corporate loopholes and tax havens that don’t help America grow. But I will also go through the federal budget, line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less – because we cannot meet 21st-century challenges with a twentieth century bureaucracy.”
Later, in an almost direct shot against those who’ve called his foreign-policy weak and “naive,” the 47-year-old junior senator, in an attempt to define what was now his Democratic Party said, “We are the party of Roosevelt. We are the party of Kennedy. So don’t tell me that Democrats won’t defend this country. Don’t tell me that Democrats won’t keep us safe. The Bush-McCain foreign policy has squandered the legacy that generations of Americans — Democrats and Republicans – have built, and we are here to restore that legacy
“As commander-in-chief, I will never hesitate to defend this nation, but I will only send our troops into harm’s way with a clear mission and a sacred commitment to give them the equipment they need in battle and the care and benefits they deserve when they come home,” he continued. “I will end this war in Iraq responsibly, and finish the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. I will rebuild our military to meet future conflicts
But I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and curb Russian aggression. I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide; climate change and disease. And I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future.”
It was a speech that did what he needed to do: define what he meant in his mission in change; tell his story and reaffirm what he saw as patriotic duty and vision, show toughness on foreign policy, while, at the same time, maintain the emotion that has so embodied his campaign. It was an unusual setting for a most unusual campaign with the kind of candidate America had never seen before.
In the bright aftermath, Ernie Reichert, from Longmont, Colo., said, “It was a tremendous speech. I can’t envision anyone else standing up there for an hour and doing what he just did.”
“I think he did a good job,” Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of American history at Princeton University, and co-editor of “Righward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s,” said in the moments after. “He went after Bush and McCain, so he showed what he was against. The second part was almost a laundry list of polices and the kind of issues he would be look at from tax breaks to lowering health-care premiums. And then he came back to the promise of post-partisan politics which we haven’t heard about for awhile. He did a better job of defining himself than the Democrats have. But he still has a lot of work to do. One speech doesn’t define a candidacy.”
One speech could do a lot though. Just consider another young senator whose detractors accused him of inexperience and fluff. Like Obama, in 1960 John F. Kennedy chose to accept his nomination not in the confines of the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, but in the vast Los Angeles Coliseum. Standing before between 50,000 to 80,000 people, Kennedy did what he needed to do. He addressed the concerns held by many Americans about his Catholic faith. He went after not only his Republican opponent, Richard M. Nixon, but the Republican ideals he represented. He spoke with authority about the need to stand up to the spread of communism across the globe, to begin to end the racial discrimination that would prove the next great battleground of the 1960s.
Late in his speech, Kennedy would find words that would define him as the best man to lead America into the 1960s.
“I stand here tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier,” Kennedy said, in words that would resonate through the decades. “From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind us, the pioneers gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build our new West. They were not the captives of their own doubts, nor the prisoners of their own price tags. They were determined to make the new world strong and free — an example to the world, to overcome its hazards and its hardships, to conquer the enemies that threatened from within and without.
“Some would say that those struggles are all over, that all the horizons have been explored, that all the battles have been won, that there is no longer an American frontier,” Kennedy continued. “But I trust that no one in this assemblage would agree with that sentiment; for the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won; and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats.”
Now, 48 years later, as delegates and Obama supporters filtered out into the Colorado darkness one felt the the second-guessing had yielded to a party ready to fight its way to the White House. As 10 p.m. approached, Clinton’s appearance receded into the darkness as a noteworthy event, but not one that would overshadow Obama tonight or haunt him going forward. Through harsh words and specifics, in unrivaled eloquence, Obama had reaffirmed the Democratic Party’ faith in its current leader. Now as he officially begun the general election, he’d showed the Democrats they wouldn’t regret their purchase, they had found a house to be proud to live in.
*Mike Lillis contributed reporting from Invesco Field in Denver.
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