Friday I had the opportunity to see Barack Obama give a speech in San Francisco (you can view some highlights here). While I had already heard him speak early this year, I barely had a glimpse of him then; this time he was right in front of me and there were big screens to each side. Most importantly, Obama has been refining his stump speech all year and the result was one of the best political speeches I have ever heard.
There is no doubt in my mind that if everyone in America had the opportunity that I had, Obama not only would win the Democratic primary but the presidency too.
Let me be clear. I do not think Obama is a savior or a miracle worker. I would likely be disappointed at some of the things he would do or say as president, and likely some of the expectations that he could radically transform Washington would go unfulfilled.
But there is no doubt that he would be a transformative and historic figure, partly because his rise is already the stuff of legend. Listening to Obama, it is clear that he understands the unique circumstances that made him first a Senator and now a major contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. These circumstances include a terribly unpopular president, the dawn of a new millennium, and a deep desire for something fresh and new. Obama has combined all of these with a political message that is much more pragmatic than ideological, a message which speaks to the optimism of the American psyche at a time when we have been fed little more than fear for the past six years.
The contrast in styles between our current president and Obama is striking, not only because of their different political views, but because of Obama’s charisma and articulateness. Whereas it is often painful to listen to Bush mangle even the simplest of phrases, if Obama becomes president people will be glued to the television every time he addresses the nation. My guess is that his speeches would become classics and be mined for soundbites for generations to come.
Obama plays a crowd like a master conductor, working his way from anecdotes, key principles, and his own insights to resounding declarations of what must be done to reclaim American greatness. He has no small bit of the preacher in him. His stump speech evokes patriotism in the best sense of the word, instilling pride and love of country, not empty jingoism.
One of the highlights of Friday’s speech came when he spoke about restoring America’s leadership in the world. He said he would go to the U.N. General Assembly and proudly declare that “America is back”. With respect to his disagreement with Hillary Clinton over speaking directly to our enemies, he declared sarcastically that he had no fear that he would lose a propaganda battle with the world’s dictators. He said a strong country, sure in its principles, has nothing to lose by engaging more with the world. Some of the biggest applause came when he said how he would restore habeus corpus and shut down Guantanamo and the CIA’s secret prisons, shouting that this is “not who we are”. Indeed.
I left the event feeling more excited about politics than I ever have, but strangely, also a little remorseful. If Obama doesn’t earn the nomination I will be very disappointed; America will have missed a historic opportunity and we will be the poorer for it.