DES MOINES — On Sunday night, Barack Obama gave a rousing address at the Nathan Weeks Middle School here that had the crowd of more than 1,000 on its feet for extended periods. (The crowd estimate is from the campaign, and I have no reason to doubt it–it was a large gym, the bleachers were packed, as was the floor, and people were standing along the walls).
The last time I saw Obama on the trail was back in May, and he has improved leaps and bounds as a candidate since then. In the early part of his campaign, Obama’s speeches were often meandering and professorial. His standard stump speech was really an updated version of his stump speech when he ran for the U.S. Senate–complete with the same jokes about his name and ruminations on cynicism being the cause of all the nation’s ills. But the man I saw Sunday night was much more like the Obama who rose to national prominence with his address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
This Obama offered a fiery and energetic case for himself as an agent of change at what he called a “defining moment of history,” and he exuded Reaganesque optimism about America as he made the pitch for his brand of liberalism. “The American people are a proud people,” he said. “We are a determined people. We are a self-reliant people. We don’t expect government to solve all our problems for us. But what we do expect, is that if you’re able and willing to work, we should be able to find a job that pays a living wage…We expect that we should be able to send our kids to college, or afford college ourselves, even if we are not wealthy. We believe that we should be able to retire with dignity and respect…Of course, from a conservative perspective, we know that in practice this vision means an ever-expanding role for government, but it’s easy to see the appeal of his message in a change election year.
Another thing that Obama did cleverly in the speech was to disarm his critics by parodying their criticisms of him. So for instance, he addressed the issue that he should have gotten more experience in the Senate before running. “Some people say, ‘Obama may have some good ideas, he may have some good proposals, but you know what? He hasn’t been in Washington long enough,'” he joked. “‘We need to have him in Washington longer. We need to stew him, and season him a little bit, and boil all of the hope out of him.'” After the audience began to laugh, he used this as a jumping off point to address Bill Clinton’s criticism that voting for him would be like “rolling the dice.” He continued, “Well let me tell you something…the real gamble is to keep on doing the same things, with the same folks, over and over again, and expect something different.” That was his subtle way of linking Bush and Clinton together as part of a Washington consensus.
One thing Obama has working against him in Iowa is that with John Edwards in the race and running strong, the anti-Hillary vote is divided. But if Obama can pull off a win here and Edwards fades, he’ll be difficult to stop–not only for Hillary, but for any Republican.