From the Obama Grassroots: "Fire It Up!" San Francisco

From the Obama Grassroots: "Fire It Up!" San Francisco
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The following piece was produced through OffTheBus, a citizen journalism project hosted at the Huffington Post and launched in partnership with NewAssignment.Net. For more information, read Arianna Huffington's project introduction. If you'd like to join our blogging team, sign up here If you're interested in other opportunities, you can see the list here.

OffTheBus Correspondent Zennie Abraham was on location as well and captured video footage of this event. A link to that footage is at the end of this piece.

Friday 860 Obama supporters in northern California, as well as the intrepid curious (including me, in my Off the Bus role) and the press (not the same as the curious), heard Barack deliver his current stump speech. We were all together in the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, but we seem not to have attended the same event, which was the "Women for Change/Women for Obama" kick off here. Los Angeles Times headline: Obama wows 'em in San Fran. Indeed the crowd responded enthusiastically, giving a standing ovation to many an Obama promise: to put "national interests over special interests," "universal health care by the end of my first term in office," "our troops out." To my mind, however, the event was curiously flat--notwithstanding the roar of the crowd, notwithstanding the fact that I had never seen Obama in person before.

First of all, the attendance figures. San Francisco Chronicle: "the Illinois senator told about 3,000 die-hard Democrats...." "Obama Speaks to Thousands at SF Event." "The Illinois senator told three thousand people...." "2000 people...." ditto. Well, let me tell you, there were 860 folks there, give or take a few latecomers, and not counting a press pack of near-fifty. I had a prime seat in the auditorium balcony and plenty of time to count them all. What's significant about the numbers? Two things: momentum and messaging. Let's take messaging first. The auditorium balcony wasn't half-full. Why was that? After all, the tickets cost only $25. But as one of my seatmates asked the balcony at-large, "how did everybody find out about this? I didn't know about it until I got an email from a friend."

Here at last is my opportunity to kvetch about the Barack Obama web site. The San Francisco speech wasn't posted on the Obama home page until a couple days out. Before then, Obama's coming to SF was buried in the web site's interior, whose very existence, not to mention the trail to it, has never been clearly marked. Moreover, signing up for an event requires enabling cookies and for some computers (like mine) disabling all virus software. And not surprisingly the local print and TV media didn't report Obama's visit until the last minute either.

Momentum is everything in politics. Obama himself knows this, for he talks in Audacity of Hope about last-minute surges carrying him to victory in his previous races. Perhaps that's why he seems so relaxed now, so Mr. Candidate in No Hurry . . . in no hurry to pull away from the pack, to criticize Hillary directly, to debate with the fire and intensity he brought to the question about poverty in the CNN/Sojourners Faith and Politics Forum back in June. On the other hand, maybe his early momentum (the 23,000 folk turning out in Austin, the 20,000 in Atlanta, the 12,000 in Oakland, the 10,000 in Iowa City) is now a drag on the campaign. Maybe that's why, although the $250 floor/luncheon seats at the San Francisco speech were supposedly sold-out, only 80% of the seats were taken, just like at any other quotidian fundraiser. Maybe that's why much of the press coverage was inaccurate (those attendance numbers). Either the reporters weren't actually there or they couldn't be bothered to summon up some inquisitiveness.

What about Obama in person? He's just as handsome, self-deprecating, and humorous as he is on C-Span. However, I now realize that he's more interesting on C-Span, because the C-Span fly-on-the-wall cameraman sticks just behind Obama's shoulder as he works an Iowa or New Hampshire crowd and records instance after instance of the Senator's wide-ranging knowledge, gift for small talk and liking for his fellow man. The speech in San Francisco, however, was boilerplate--almost the identical speech he gave at a Labor Day Campaign Rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, down to the same stories, the same jokes. Not, of course, that I would have expected anything else, given the brutal campaign schedule, but I did hope.

His best anecdote centers on a campaign stop in Greenwood, South Carolina. In exchange for the endorsement of a state legislator, Obama promises to visit the legislator's home town, which he belatedly discovers is "an hour-and-a-half drive from everywhere else." One rainy morning very early, when he is especially grumpy, Obama finds himself meeting with Greenwood's twenty inhabitants. Suddenly behind him he hears Fire it up! Turning, he sees that the stentorian command issues from a tiny old lady wearing a large church hat. Ready to go! the lady shouts. Soon everybody is chanting to her beat, and Obama realizes that he is perking up. Fire it up! Ready to go! has become his campaign chant.

Obama said a few things, used a few phrases, of which I've taken note before, which I'm not sure his enthusiastic supporters--my husband calls them the Obamitized--are absorbing. When we fall in love, we hear what we want to hear. Take the War in Iraq. Obama, like Clinton, doesn't say "get out now." In San Francisco, Obama said he would "gradually and responsibly remove troops." Those adverbs cover a lot of possibility. At the end of his speech, Obama said that one of his first moves as president would be to go to the U.N. and say, "America is back. It's time for America to lead again." Behind such a vision of our role in world affairs are assumptions about our military with which I suspect many Obama supporters would disagree. ("We should expand our ground forces by adding 65,000 soldiers to the army and 27,000 marines." Barack Obama, "Renewing American Leadership," Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007.) More significantly, to my mind, is a consistent note in Obama's public remarks on a call for sacrifice. "The American people are ready for sacrifice," Obama said in San Francisco. Now what exactly does he mean by that? He never spells it out. "What I am asking of you is hard--understand that before you applaud," he said. The crowd was already clapping furiously, even harder as, a minute later, he segued into the observation that "women have always made the difference in every election." True--but what does that have to do with sacrifice?

After the San Francisco speech, I interviewed some Obama grassroots folk who had driven six hours from Humboldt County to hear their man (see my next blog post), and Senator Obama hurried on to Portland and then back to California. The San Francisco lunch notwithstanding, it was Big Donor Time. Thomas Weisel Healthcare Venture Partners co-founder Richard Spalding had hosted a $2,300 a head party at his San Francisco Pacific Heights mansion Thursday night. (I wonder what those men, all of whom sit on various pharmaceutical boards, think of the plank in Obama's healthcare plan that focuses on trimming drug companies' profits.) Saturday was Oprah Winfrey's Montecito garden party preceded by Human Rights Watch donor Nancy Koppelman's luncheon with Obama, for the well-heeled Santa Barbara Democrats who couldn't get into the Oprah event. Before that, Obama gave his stump speech on the lawn at Santa Barbara City College. Obama's wife Michelle had been in Los Angeles Thursday and Friday at big donor dinners and after Saturday was off to London and more dinners. These fat cat soirees are never mentioned on the campaign web site.

Will these appearances transmute into a primary win in California? It will be especially interesting to see if Oprah's endorsement provides such alchemy. Will a new momentum for Obama, if he manages to find it, come from Montecito, or from Greenwood?

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