December 14, 2006
why Obama has lit a fire
There is a remarkable gap between Senator Obama's actual speech in New Hampshire last weekend (click for video) and the endless coverage and commentary that I have read about it. Reporters and bloggers uniformly take the line that Obama presented himself as someone "new"--as a "change"--and New Hampshire Democratic voters liked him for that reason. Supposedly, they saw him as "new" because of his recent arrival in Washington, his relatively young age, his career in grassroots organizing, and even his race and immigrant background, which make him different from all the other contenders--and worlds apart from the incumbent president.
Novelty would be a superficial reason to "swoon" for Obama; that feeling would soon wear off. But reporters really didn't pay attention to his speech, which is why they don't grasp the source of his popularity.
Now, listen, I have to confess that there has been a little bit of fuss about me lately. And I have been a little suspicious of it, because I actually come from a background of community organizing and grassroots organizing and mobilization and empowerment, and so--a lot of reporters of late have been asking me, 'Well, why are you coming to New Hampshire? What does this mean? You've got big crowds. Does this definitely mean you're jumping in? And this and that and the other.'
What I told them during a press event earlier here today, and what I want to say to you--Obviously it's flattering to get so much attention, although I must say it's baffling, particularly to my wife. I actually think that the reason I'm getting so much attention right now has less to do with me and more to do with you. I think to some degree I've become a shorthand or a symbol or a stand-in, for now, of a spirit that the last election in New Hampshire represented. And it's a spirit that says we are looking for something new. [applause] ...
It's a spirit that says we are going to re-engage in our democracy in a way that we haven't done for some time, that we are going to take hold of our collective lives together and reassert our values and our ideals on our politics. And that doesn't depend on one person. That doesn't depend on me or the Governor or a congressman or a speaker. It depends on you.
There's a wonderful saying by Justice Louis Brandeis once, that the most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen. And that, I think, more than anything is what the election here in New Hampshire represented on Nov. 7. And that is the tradition of New Hampshire, not just in presidential primaries but each and every day: the idea that all of us have a stake in this government, all of us have responsibilities, all of us have to step up to the plate, and as a consequence of everybody ... doing just that, we had an outstanding election here in New Hampshire. So I'm here to get some tips from you. [Applause] I'm here to soak up some of that energy. [Growing applause.] I'm here to bask in the glow of the great work that you have done. And I want you guys to remember that. You're the story, not me. Now that's hard to understand, because that's not the politics we have seen just lately.
The Senator then talks about his work trying to "rebuild and renew America"--especially low-income America--through grassroots organizing. He connects his own work to American history, which he sees as a series of popular uprisings led by "pastors, organizers, agitators, and troublemakers" who have had the audacity to hope.
In each and every juncture of our history, there has someone who has been willing to say that we can do better. ... We can create a country where everybody's got a shot, where every child can dream. ... And I think what's been happening over these last several months is people have realized that that kind of spirit has been lost over the last decade. [Applause.] It's not that ordinary people have forgotten how to dream big dreams; they just think that their leadership has forgotten. [Applause] ... And so what happened in this election, not just here in New Hampshire but all across the country, is that voters decided to start paying attention. They looked up and they said, 'We're in a serious mood, we're in a sober mood, and we want to know, how can we rekindle that spirit?'
Pundits have ignored everything in the speech after "we are looking for something new." (You literally can't find the rest of the speech with a Google search.) Reporters assume that Obama's words about citizenship were just throat-clearing, or crowd-pleasing rhetoric, or false modesty. Thus they can't grasp why people love him.
The public is hungry for more opportunities to participate in solving our grievous problems. It is not only the depth of our challenges that upsets us, but also the sense that we have been shut out of civic life and cannot be part of the solution. A candidate who can genuinely empower citizens will ignite powerful enthusiasm--not among all Americans, but among the politically active who dominate primary elections.
Obama has most of the ingredients he needs to run a persuasive "empowerment" campaign--much more so than Al Gore, John Kerry, or Hillary Clinton. As a community organizer, he has the right resume. (His "home town" of Chicago has been the epicenter of grassroots civic work since the time of Jane Addams.) He speaks eloquently and insightfully about civic participation. What he will need is a list of serious policy proposals for civic renewal. By connecting his rhetoric of empowerment to concrete reforms, he may be able to persuade reporters and other elites to take that rhetoric seriously. They will realize that he really means what he says. And then the fire that he has kindled may begin to burn.
... and that's my obligation, to make sure that I'm willing to partner with the American people on the common-sense, pragamatic, not ideological agenda that they're hungry for to meet the challenges that we face [Applause.]