Barack Obama is the only American politician who can fill a stadium, as he did last night in Denver. By moving the venue from the smaller, indoor arena to the massive outdoor one, he did three things. First, he invited, and received, comparisons with John F. Kennedy who accepted the Democratic nod in 1960 with a speech at Los Angeles’ Memorial Coliseum. Second, his campaign snagged the emails and cell phone numbers of the 84,000 attendees, so Obama has a ready-made group of volunteers in Colorado. Third, he upped the ante of expectations for himself. Did he meet them?
The early responses from the media indicate that he did. The praise was universal, even to the point of tedium. The interviews with men and women on the street and in the stadium confirmed the talking heads’ impression: It was a home run. Me? I gave it a B+ and thought Obama’s speech after losing New Hampshire’s primary remains his best effort. (It was that concession speech which was set to music by will.i.am. and John Legend.) Of course, a B+ by Obama’s standards is probably an A+ for other politicians but I did not think it was one of his better efforts.
Obama hit his strongest notes when criticizing the social Darwinism of the GOP, although evangelicals would have liked it if he used that phrase. He repeated the refrain that the Republicans’ policies created a "you’re on your own" society and contrasted that with the Democratic approach that "honors the dignity of work." He spoke of the waitress who lives on tips but can’t make enough money to take a day off to care for a sick kid. This was an appeal to the better angels of our nature (to paraphrase another Illinois politician seeking the presidency) and Obama is always at his best when he delivers such an appeal. He returned to the Scriptural quote that he invoked in the 2004 keynote address that launched his national career four years ago. "I am my brother’s keeper."
His smartest move was an attempt to preempt the Republican use of wedge issues. He addressed abortion head-on: "We may not agree about abortion but surely we can agree that we need to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies." His desire to move beyond the stale and stalled debates in Washington and find some common ground remains the personal quality that most commends him to the electorate at this moment in our nation’s history when 20 years of divisive politics by both parties have left the political class gridlocked and ineffective. Americans have never been as divided one from another as Karl Rove would have you believe, though they have been effectively divided for his electoral purposes. Obama claims he can find or create common ground. Indeed, this is what most distinguished him from Hillary Clinton, the woman who coined the term "the war room" to describe a political campaign’s headquarters.
It was refreshing to hear a candidate begin his discussion of immigration reform by calling attention to the need to defend families and not just to defend borders. "Passions fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers," Obama declared. The raid earlier in the week in Mississippi that netted some 700 arrests in fact achieved precisely this outrageous separation of parents from their children. It is un-American and unchristian and it has to stop. Obama was right to call for that stop.
It will be interesting to see the contrast between the Democrats’ largely uplifting message and what the GOP will display next week. The Dems went after McCain but no one hit below the belt. I suspect the Republicans will not be so reserved when they train their sights on Obama. Nor will McCain be as eloquent. For while last night’s speech may not have been Obama’s best, I confess a tear went down my cheek more than once when pondering the historical nature of the night.
Michael Sean Winters