Thursday, January 31, 2008
Michelle Obama at DSU: Eyewitness report
OK, first the good news: the auditorium was full to nearly bursting, the crowd was spirited, and Michelle Obama is, I must admit, one of the best pure speakers I have seen or heard in some time. You could tell she is exhausted (she would occasionally flip words from sheer fatigue), but she was passionate, pointed, and funny, and the Obama campaign has identified some clear issues for her to focus on.
My son thought she reminded him of Martin Luther King, Jr. (that is, when he looked up occasionally from the laptop).
His twin sister loved what she said about public education (and I admit I was thrilled to hear somebody talking about the elimination of No Child Left Behind).
In many ways Michelle Obama strikes me (possibly because of the slight physical resemblance) as what the neo-cons hoped Condi Rice would become.
The bad news: I really question the choice of venue at DSU for the campaign's purpose. The 1,200-strong crowd was dominated by DSU students, staff, and faculty. Standing in line outside I would say that less than 20% of the audience there was from outside DSU. Don't get me wrong, I am thrilled for my university to be hosting this, but....
Here's my problem: I know (because I teach them and we talk about these issues) that less than half of those students are actually registered to vote. Moreover, less than 20% of those students are Delaware residents in the first place, and I will guarantee you that the non-DE residents (even if they are registered) did not bother to sign up for absentee ballots in their home states.
So I am guessing that at most 300 of the 1,200 people in the crowd are actually potential voters in Tuesday's primary. So unless, from the Obama campaign perspective, this whole appearance as about getting media shots with a large crowd (which I admit is possible), it seems like a poor use of Michelle's time and the campaign's effort to set up an event that reaches so few voters.
I compare this to 1996 when Elizabeth Dole visited Dover to do a similar surrogate appearance for Bob Dole. She appeared in the auditorium of the local middle school, in front of 800-1,000 people, almost all of whom were actual registered voters.
I guess my perception is that this is somewhat indicative of a campaign staff that maybe doesn't have quite as much experience as it needs for a successful national campaign--but I could also be way off the mark.
As to the specifics of the speech:
1) I was interested in the approach that "our differences are far less significant that we think they are"--this seems to be a good, workable line
2) Without ever mentioning Hillary, she managed to hit her hard three or four times, and to lump the previous Clinton administration as being part of a contiguous pattern forward from Reagan.
3) She did a really good job of countering the experience argument, by pointing out that with his 8 years in the Illinois state legislature and 4 years as a US Senator, Barack can claim more legislative experience than Hillary.
4) She also did an excellent job of managing to limn Hillary as a status quo candidate. You often hear conservatives complain that John McCain is a Democrat in everything but party affiliation; Michelle makes an equally compelling case that Hillary is in many ways a Republican in everything but party affiliation. I'm not sure that the claim will stand close scrutiny, but close scrutiny isn't what this kind of speech is about; leaving a lasting emotional impression is.
5) She constantly hit on Barack's empathy and commitment to public service, and noted that he had worked his way up to this position, starting from community work on Chicago's Southside. This was tacitly contrasted to Hillary, who stopped to make her fortune before really discovering her call to public service. Again, not airtight logic, but a good political comeback against some of the Clinton attack machine assertions.
6) She sold family values and human dignity far better than Hillary ever has. She wasn't so interested in "helping people" as Hillary's commercials suggest, but in ensuring that people have the support to do it for themselves. Not so sure where this translates into actual Obama policy, but it sure makes a better soundbite than anything the Clintons are putting out there.
My overall impressions:
Grade for the campaign in scheduling this event (location/audience): B-
Grade for the overall quality of the presentation: A- [not enough campaign literature available going in or out]
Grade for Michelle's performance as a speaker: A+
Grade for Obama campaign themes in terms of political effectiveness: B+/A- [while these themes were very good, I have not seen them tied into the campaign TV advertisements]
Conclusion: Despite my positive impressions, I think this race to the Democratic nomination is a game of percentages and inches. It's the tiny little organizational things that are going to matter. Obama has more money for advertising, but I'll bet that there will be more Clinton Co. buses and vans taking supporters to the polls to vote. I think that Barack may get as close as Reagan got to Ford in 1976 (losing the nomination by maybe 25 votes).
Which is a shame, since it will leave us with Clinton-McCain, an election in which no matter who wins, everybody loses.