This post was a little delayed because the fire situation here in Southern California has us in the news biz a little consumed this week. Last night around dinner time I smelled smoke and ran outside in a panic. Turns out my neighbor was grilling. We're a little on edge out here.
Anyway, I covered covered a Barack Obama rally in East Los Angeles the other day. (Though his press people told me they prefer the term "town hall event." Whatever.). Afterwards a friend said now I have to hope Obama becomes president so when I run for office I can tell the story about how I was two feet from the man and he inspired me to change the world. A nice thought, though I'm not ready yet to announce my candidacy.
If you'll allow me to put aside my journalistic objectivity for a moment, I'll offer my Obama impressions:
I'm generally not too familiar with these kinds of campaign stops (though I did see Ross Perot give an awesomely underwhelming stump speech in 1992). One thing that surprised me about the Obama town hall was how apparently informal it was. Obviously there were handlers and security and boring speeches by seemingly every local elected official within 100 miles. But after Obama gave his prepared remarks on education (he's for it), the event turned into a relatively freewheeling affair.
While the crowd was definitely a friendly one, at times rapturously so, I didn't get the impression anyone was planted in the audience (in fact, Obama said as much, an obvious crack on George W. and his notorious penchant for handpicking crowds). There were no hard-hitting questions, but Obama really shined during the audience Q&A. He was loose and demonstrated a keen grasp on all kinds of policy issues, with little to no phumphering. He comes across as either really smart or really prepared, or both.
On the charisma scale, Obama doesn't quite hit Clintonian levels, though it's obvious he's learned a lot from Bill. He maintains eye contact. He listens. He's patient, even with the kooks in the crowd. He comes across as sincere, and not that fake kind of sincere of which both Clintons and Giuliani are sometimes accused. When one guy went on and on about the need for a universal language (a new kind of Esperanto?), Obama gently led him to a conclusion and then instructed a handler to take the man's literature. It was expertly done.
The biggest surprise of the day was that Obama appears to have an actual sense of humor. Not a surgically implanted funny bone like Hillary, but an honest-to-goodness jocularity he was born with. He was not afraid to be sarcastic about the soul-sucking grind of a politician and cracked jokes about the fact that Dick Cheney might be a distant relative ("He's the black sheep of the family"). Obviously some, if not all, of the comical lines were prepared but he was able to deliver them in a fresh way that charmed the crowd.
The bottom line is I think Obama has "the stuff" to become president. And I'm not talking about questions of policy or experience or even governing ability. I mean he's got the rap down. He's got the style, looks good in a suit. He's got that kind of politician's vibe where he can pretend to be a man of the people, while also coming across as a leader of people.
If I had to offer any criticisms, it would be... all of the above. I mean, what kind of person wants
to become president? All of the candidates have to be crazy on some level, right? One thing that kept nagging me while watching the two-hour town hall unfold was that Obama does this every day, sometimes two or three times a day. For years
. Same smile, same speeches, same music on the loudspeakers. I almost felt sorry for the guy. There's got to be a better way to make a living.