On Wednesday night, Barack Obama came home to Brooklyn, the place he spent some time living when he was a student at Columbia University. From the wildly enthusiastic reception he received there, you’d think it’s where he was born and raised.
Brooklynites are natural Obama supporters — young, multiracial, community-oriented, and above all, liberal. Attendees, who appeared to be among the borough’s more well-educated and politically active, paid $25 and stood in a cramped hotel ballroom for over an hour and a half as the candidate made his way from a Daily Show taping on Manhattan’s west side. Yet they cheered louder than any crowd I’ve heard this year when, at last, Obama emerged through a black curtain beneath a banner emblazoned with the words “Brooklyn for Barack” and made his way to the stage, stopping to shake every hand. If Brooklyn was an early primary state, Hillary Clinton would have reason to be worried.
Of course, it’s not, and across the country Hillary enjoys a solid lead over Obama in the polls. She is widely expected to be the Democratic nominee in 2008. But that did not dampen the spirits of Brooklyn’s Obama supporters Wednesday night, any more than the long wait or the stuffy room did. Standing there and listening with them to his stump speech, I had to wonder: Are they just too caught up in the candidate’s charisma to listen?
For instance, take Obama’s remarks on energy: “People are fed up with the lack of energy strategy in this country. Why is it that we’re paying three bucks at the gas tank?” First of all, who’s he talking to? Less than half of New York City residents own cars. Second, making cars more expensive to drive happens to be all the rage in this city right now.
“We’re sending all that money to Exxon Mobil or some of the most hostile nations on earth, we’re funding both sides in the War on Terrorism, and we’re melting the polar ice caps… why isn’t somebody doing something about that?” Obama answers his own question: He says it’s because Dick Cheney crafted the nation’s energy policy at the behest of the oil-and-gas industry. “People are tired of that,” he says. “They want something new.”
Obama is pitching himself as an outsider who won’t let D.C. lobbyists influence his vote. But a brief examination of his record during this year’s energy debates in the Senate puts the lie to that claim. Along with Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning, Obama introduced a bill in January called the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007. At the time, global-warming activists opposed the bill and excoriated Obama for selling out to coal interests in southern Illinois. An Obama spokesman countered by pointing out that the senator had introduced legislation to increase the production of ethanol.
I know my friends in Brooklyn know that pandering to the ethanol lobby is pretty far from “something new.” But the applause for that line was out of control.
The crowd went wild again when Obama brought up foreign policy. Among Democratic primary voters, he is probably most distinguishable from the other two candidates, policy-wise, by his early opposition to the invasion of Iraq (Hillary and John Edwards voted for it). Hillary has tried to regain the upper hand in recent weeks by attempting to portray Obama as a lightweight on matters of international diplomacy and military strategy.
When asked at a debate last month if he would meet with the leaders of Cuba, Syria, Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea “without precondition,” Obama said that he would and that it was a shame that Bush hadn’t done so. Clinton argued that such an approach would allow the dictators of those countries to use the meetings for propaganda purposes.
On Wednesday night, Obama said, “You shouldn’t be afraid to talk to anybody.” Everybody went nuts. Over the cheering, he shouted, “I’m not worried about losing a propaganda battle to a dictator. I know what I stand for.”
He addressed Iraq next, in that context: “We need to be strong in our diplomatic efforts. And talk to everybody, and talk to the Shia and the Sunni and the Kurds. Talk to Iran and talk to the Syrians. Get the [U.N.] Security Council involved and come up with a plan to stabilize the government.”
I wondered if those applauding the last statement were aware that the U.N. Security Council voted two weeks ago to broaden its role in Iraq, specifically to help solve its political problems. And the idea of getting Iran and Syria involved in a plan to stabilize the government while they are in the process of destabilizing the government seems more than a little far-fetched. But one can’t advocate a speedy exit from Iraq and simultaneously talk of ending the genocide in Darfur, as Obama does, without pretending that diplomacy can prevent genocide from breaking out in Iraq in the absence of the U.S. military.
In addition to energy and Iraq, Obama deployed the standard Democratic talking points on No Child Left Behind (“George W. Bush left the money behind!”), health care (nationalize it), and tax cuts (they only went to Bush’s rich friends instead of “folks who need them”). This is pretty much the same stuff the other Democratic candidates are saying.
What sets Barack apart, especially in places like New York, is that he is a genuine celebrity. After the speech was over, as he was making his exit to the tune of Tina Turner’s Simply the Best, I watched as the adoring throng mobbed him like a movie star, eagerly pushing copies of The Audacity of Hope into his hands for an autograph.
Celebrities love him. (Oprah is throwing him a star-studded fundraiser in California next month.) His story is like many of theirs: Prior to his big break (the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention), he was kind of a nobody, just one of 59 Illinois state senators. He wowed everyone with his performance, and overnight the media made him a household name. Now he feels the press has turned on him unfairly. At one point Wednesday night he mused, “When I start talking like that, the Washington press corps starts rolling its eyes. They say, ‘Ach, he’s talking about hope again. He’s so naïve.’”
I don’t think it’s that. But the magic has worn off a bit, and Washington journalists are starting to see that Obama is just another politician, albeit one who sounds slightly more like a human being. In New York, however — its penchant for celebrity-worship rivaled only by Hollywood’s — Obama belongs. It’s almost as if he never left.
Stephen Spruiell is a National Review Online staff reporter.