I don't want to blame Barack Obama for the fact that his appearance at Soldiers and Sailors today was a SLIGHT letdown for me. The expectations have been raised so high that it's unfair to judge a Presidential candidate by them. A certain disappointment would have been inevitable for me unless he'd reattached a Roman soldier's ear, or raised Lazarus from the tomb.
Besides, the crowd was FAR more enthusiastic than it had been for a Clinton appearance at Soldiers & Sailors two weeks before.
On one level, that's kind of strange. While Obama is a gifted speaker, his appearance wasn't THAT much better than Clinton's. And as almost everyone knows, there isn't much difference between Obama and Clinton on a policy level. Early on, Obama joked that the campaign has gone on so long that he and Clinton could take each other's debate lines and not miss a beat. The truth is they could do it without changing their platforms much, either.
The rest of his speech reflected that: Like Clinton, Obama promised to give us a healthcare plan similar to the one they have in Congress, and decried the treatment of veterans returning from Iraq. There wasn't a hell of a lot of substance in his speech, but then there wasn't much in Clinton's either. (You can see footage of Obama's speech -- in two parts -- by clicking here.)
No, the real diference between Obama and Clinton was in the crowd itself. It wasn't just that it was more diverse in terms of age and ethnicity, or that the room was somewhat more crowded. It wasn't just that there were more reporters there. (Even local colleges sent TV crews -- something they didn't do for Clinton. Some of the more veteran local camera guys were grousing over how crowded the risers were getting, thanks to the arrival of minor media players. Like, um, City Paper.) The real difference was in the enthusiasm of the crowd: There were rousing cheers even for some of Obama's more cliched lines, and a give-and-take with the crowd that was totally absent from Clinton's appearance. And after the event, the atmosphere was much more festive than Clinton's more sedate following. There wasa lot more merchandising, for one thing.
Every politician does what Obama does -- pledge to change the Beltway culture and remake the country from the ground up. And it's not that I saw Obama do anything special to make people believe it. From what I could see, the people in that room were believers already. The measure of Obama's success is not the energy he brought to the room, but the energy the crowd carried with it ... energy which has now reached the level where it sustains itself.
I'm not saying Obama is an empty suit or a cipher. I'm saying that ALL candidates -- or at least all the successful ones -- get where they are by virtue of the emotional associations that get attached to them. At some point, the old politician's cliche becomes true: The race really ISN'T about them. It's about an excitement they spark, but that soon begins to feed on itself. And if their appearances in Oakland are any indication, Obama has a decided advantage on that score.
In fact, the big news from today's rally will be that Obama receieved the endorsement of Sen. Robert Casey. This is not EXACTLY a surprise; the Casey family's antipathy for the Clintons is well known. (You may recall that Casey's father was not given a chance to speak at the 1992 convention, when Bill Clinton became the nominee.) But Hillary Clinton's campaign is counting on winning big in Pennsylvania, on the strength of the state's "Casey Democrats" -- union-friendly, economically liberal but socially conservative voters. Now the biggest Casey Democrat of all is throwing his support behind Obama.
Ironically, later in his speech, Obama derided those doubters who once thought he needed the support of party insiders in order to win. More than a few Obama supporters, I'll wager, thought Bob Casey was just such an insider as recently as 24 hours ago. (And they would STILL have thought so had Casey backed Clinton.) But Obama has reached that heady point where he can have it both ways -- scooping up the support of party insiders, while at the same time pledging to take those insiders on. You can't even call that hypocrisy at a certain point: It's the inevitable result of what happens when a campaign becomes large enough to be self-sustaining, large enough to win.
Most polls still suggest a Clinton whomping in Pennsyvlania -- she's up by 15 or 20 points. But I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest a much tighter margin. I'm guessing Clinton by a margin of half the expected size ... partly because of the recent surge in voter registration across the state, partly because of the Casey backing, partly because of the contrasting levels of enthusiasm at the two Oakland rallies.
Clinton too, suffers from high expectations about her performance here. But if SHE fails to live up to those hopes, the cost will be much higher.