Presidential candidate finds his voice in San Francisco but can he still turn the race around?
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Barack Obama came to San Francisco with some pretty heavy baggage Nov. 14. His speech at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium was swarmed by a diverse crowd of about 7,000, with most of those we interviewed hungry for an answer to the big question: is Obama the one who can take this troubled country in a new direction?
The Illinois senator had just gotten a bump from a cover story in the Atlantic, "Why Obama Matters," which posits that he is the only candidate capable of moving our country past the divisive culture-war paradigms and into a period when fundamental change is possible.
But time is running out for Obama to take the Democratic presidential nomination from front-runner Hillary Clinton, who has locked up moderates and most women. And some progressives, including labor unions, are behind John Edwards. To win the nomination, Obama must find a way to quickly rally the left including urban voters and the antiwar, social justice, LGBT, and labor movements into an energized voting block.
And that, some progressives say, means he's got to stop playing it safe.
Guardian photo by Lane Hartwell
Days before the speech, former California state senator and 1960s radical Tom Hayden sent Obama a letter taking issue with the latter's comment that Democrats are paralyzed by Vietnam-era fights and in particular, his response, "That's just not my framework."
Hayden argued that Obama was squandering his advantage as the sole credible antiwar candidate by running a safe campaign that equally repudiates both political extremes even though progressives have been far closer to the truth on issues of war, civil rights, economic equity, and the full range of traditional Democratic planks.
Hayden wrote, "The greatest gift you have been given by history is that as the elected tribune of a revived democracy, you could change America's dismal role in the world. Because of what you so eloquently represent, you could convince the world to give America a new hearing, even a new respect. There are no plazas large enough for the crowds that would listen to your every word, wondering if you are the one the whole world is waiting for. They would not wait for long, of course. But they would passionately want to give you the space to reset the American direction."
Many attendees of Obama's SF speech shared similar sentiments. "I'm interested in what he's been saying in his books, but he's become a kind of politician, so I want to hear what he has to say tonight," Jeremy Umland, 33, a third grade teacher from Oakland, said as he was waiting in line. "I think he had a lot of brave ideas in the past, and I'd like to see him get back to that."
Umland, who is white and gay, stood with his partner, Terrence Marks, 34, who is black. The couple are in the process of adopting a child and wanted to hear Obama call for legalizing gay marriage or for a health care plan that doesn't involve insurance companies.
"I'd like to see him address it in a way that doesn't evade this issue," Marks said. "I want to hear him talk not like a politician, but a real person."
Inside, Obama gave voice to many of those same themes.
"Running the same old textbook, by the numbers, Washington campaign just won't do it.... The triangulation and poll-tested positions because we're afraid of what Mitt [Romney] or Rudy [Giuliani] will say about us just won't do it," Obama said, adding, "If we're going to seize the moment, then we can't live in fear of losing."
He said we are in "a defining moment in our history," when Americans need to grapple with war, a planet in peril, economic insecurity, and a political system that seems corrupt and incompetent. "We've lost faith that our leaders can or will do anything about it," Obama said.
Over and over again, Obama said he is running to deal with the most difficult issues: living wages, universal health care, human rights and dignity, racial harmony, honest foreign diplomacy, and a return to the principles of the New Deal. "I'm running for president of the United States because that is the party that America needs us to be right now.
"I am in this race," he said, "because of what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now."
Good stuff, but is it too late? "I don't see it happening, but it's still possible that Hillary Clinton will slip in Iowa. She's not invincible," Hayden told us.
In fact, a new ABCWashington Post poll shows Obama taking the lead over Clinton in Iowa, 30 percent to 26, with Edwards at 22 percent.
"Seeing him through the eyes of my 34-year-old son and his wife, I could see there was a lot of new excitement among the younger generation and that it would be a shame if that just dissipates," Hayden told us. "The thing Obama needs most is what he steers around: he need a new social justice movement similar in strength to what we had in the '60s."
Donald Fowler, a San Francisco resident and Democratic Party campaign consultant who ran John Kerry's Michigan campaign in 2004 and Al Gore's field operation in 2000, said Obama has suffered for trying to communicate detailed positions through an intense media filter.
"You get into the danger of running a government when you should be running a campaign," Fowler told us.
He and Hayden each said that particularly on the Iraq war issue, where Obama is strongest, he should have projected his stance more boldly, something he may now be starting to do.
"My guess is they have decided to be strong, state things clearly, and take back the discussion," Fowler said. Listening to Obama discuss this moment, that assessment seems likely.
"It's because of these failures that people are listening intently," Obama said. "We have the chance to come together to form a new majority." *
To hear Barack Obama's speech and read the Atlantic article and Tom Hayden's letter, visit www.sfbg.com .