So today I went to see Barack Obama address a rally in Oakland, roughly the equivalent of making a trip to zone four -- not crazy far, but you don't go there much. I was glad I went. Photos of the event are already turning up on Flickr.
The first thing that surprised me was that the event was ticketed: there were huge, and I mean huge lines to get into a gated off area in front of a stage where Obama was to be speaking. The tickets were free, though, and they were handing them out outside the gates -- you just had to sign up with your name and email address, presumably so they can spam you later for fundraising purposes. Alright by me: as a non-resident alien, I can't vote and I can't donate money, so I can only very indirectly support the campaign.
The crowd was interesting in itself. Firstly, keep in mind that the election is still not for another, oh, 20 months or so. So the fact that there was a rally at all was interesting. The second is the composition of the crowd: Oakland is a very black city, to be sure (about 33% according to Wikipedia), but this crowd seemed closer to half black. Dunno if that's good or bad for his campaign, really.
The publicity said "gates open at 3pm". I was pretty sure this didn't mean he'd be speaking at that time, but I thought hey, maybe 20 minutes later. Nope: he didn't start talking until 4pm. Until then, the crowd had a warm up band. It was all very friendly. The crowd soon realized that the layout of the venue meant that almost nobody would be able to see the stage (the layout of the park in front of city hall meant it was in a depression, and most people were on a raised park), so there was almost no jostling for place: everyone was content just to hear the man speak. There was a lot of good-natured backchat, especially about the choice of warm-up music: Start it Up by the Stones, Beautiful Day by U2 and a bunch of other liberal-left-rally clichï¿½s that have been used by Labour in the UK as well.
The mayor of Oakland gave a brief welcome speech, followed by a clumsy, stilted but heartfelt speech by a young, recently returned Iraq veteran about, well, about how much he liked the Bay Area, really. It didn't seem to be very political, it was just kind of heartwarming. Then the man himself turned up, to hugely enthusiastic cheering from the crowd. And here's where I refer to my notes, typed into a series of saved text messages on my phone. Because I didn't just want to remember "he spoke very well", I wanted to remember exactly what he said, and specifically what his campaign promises were. I know one of the main criticisms levelled at him is that he's charismatic and friendly but light on policies, so here was my chance to hear exactly what it was he planned. This is why I came to the rally.
He opened with a joke, talking about the day he announced his candidacy, a "glorious, crisp, 7 degree day" and how he was worried that it would be too cold, that nobody would show up: 17,000 people showed up. From this he moved on to talking about life on the campaign trail, and his wife, and a joke about his kids and their reaction to daddy's "president thing". These jokes didn't come off like stilted, poorly-timed one-liners (aka "Kerry jokes"). They were natural and fitted in with everything else he was saying; they were just funny. Obviously he's done this speech a hundred times and it's all been rehearsed, but so were Kerry's speeches and Kerry's jokes were lousy.
One of his kids had asked "why are we here?" on the campaign trail, and he used that to segue into a question about why everyone was here at the rally. We were here, he said, to prevent the Republicans turning the nation into somewhere meaner and poorer, to solve the problems in the country: healthcare and education, math and science scores, a lack of qualified graduates, too-expensive college education (a big cheer on that one from the Berkeley students). He wants to give this country an energy strategy, to make it less dependent on unstable oil nations (though no details). He wants to end the war (huge cheer), he wants to tackle global warming and climate change, he wants a fairer distribution of the gains of the economy; a better quality of life for everyone.
So far, so politics. But this was all delivered incredibly eloquently, with sincerity that rang in every word. It was great. But he was just getting warmed up.
He thinks war has harmed America's influence around the world, drained it financially, and made it less safe. He gave a heart-rending story about meeting a terribly wounded soldier and his family, and about how hard it was for that family. He used this to make the point: this soldier's drastically changed life, the hardship he and his family were going through, was the direct result of a decision made by the President. "Politics is not a game", he said, and politicians have lost sight of that. Politics is about ordinary people, their lives, and what they want out of them. He wants to get rid of the cynicism and corruption that has infected politics, and replace it with the politics of hope.
This went down very well with the crowd and with me. The image of the Bushies making decisions without thinking of the consequences, like a giant board game, was very striking without him having to draw it explicitly. He was in full swing now, with no end of quotable quotes.
Many people, he said, point to his lack of experience. He disagreed: his experience as a community leader "showed me that ordinary people can do extraordinary things", his experience as a civil rights attorney showed him that "fairness and justice must be fought for every day". His experience in the senate had led him to introduce laws on racial profiling, reforms of ethics, and other legislative achievement. He didn't have much Washington experience, he said, but he had enough to know that Washington had to change.
And by this point I, and everybody else, was eating out of his hand. We know this, of course we know this, that the system is rotten and needs to be reformed. Keep a clear head, listen carefully: has he said anything concrete yet? Are there any campaign promises in there? Not really. But right on cue, he got into specifics.
Improve healthcare by focussing on lowering costs and improving preventative care to eliminate costly emergency room visits. Take better care of those with diabetes and other chronic diseases, to prevent them hitting the emergency room so often. And then, "and I want to be accountable for this" universal healthcare by the end of his first term in office.
Did he really just promise to give the 45 million uninsured people healthcare within 4 years? Well, no: he promised universal healthcare, by means unspecified. But that's still a pretty big promise, a pretty specific promise, and an unambiguous deadline to achieve it.
The promises continued, in the form of a parade of optimism: "we know what to do, we know how to fix these things": invest in teachers, strengthen unions (big cheer, oh dear, pandering), invest in broadband for the poor and rural areas, cap carbon emissions (no specifics), and interestingly, create new jobs and a whole new sector of the economy by creating industries based around alternative energy and environmentally-friendly technology. End the war (huge cheer) and use the money saved to solve problems at home. Withdraw troops, starting May 1st and ending before the election, but safely and responsibly, without putting the troops at risk and giving Iraqi forces time to take the place of the Americans. And to take care of those wounded soldiers, with healthcare and counselling.
And there it ended, an hour later: a pretty clear platform of income redistribution, health and education, with a strong focus on energy policy and green issues. No talk of foreign policy, no talk of gay rights (disappointingly, no mention of the ongoing Don't Ask, Don't Tell controversy stirred up by general Pace, but you can see why he's avoiding that disaster for democrats). And, yes, a shortage of firm policy promises, although universal healthcare is pretty specific and pretty audacious.
Above all, it was a message of optimism: yes, the system is broken, but it can be fixed, by us, right now. And this funny, sincere, incredibly, hypnotically charismatic man seems like just the right guy to do it.