The Trail: A Daily Diary of Campaign 2008


Iowans Say 'Hi, Obama'

INDEPENDENCE, Iowa--It happens every so often on the presidential campaign trail, amid the pomp and stagecraft: reality intrudes. And when it does, the candidate had better be ready, because he or she knows that voters and reporters alike search such moments for insights that the usual stump speech doesn't provide. It happened this afternoon for Barack Obama at the Buchanan County fairgrounds in Independence, Iowa, when Geri Punteney, a 50-year-old Independence native sitting near the front of the crowd, got up to ask a question.

It was obvious from the start that she was upset and nervous. She addressed the senator with "Hi, Obama." She then gave her name and said, "I have a brother who's dying of cancer." She got no further and broke into sobs, and apologies for her sobs, and couldn't continue. Obama stepped forward, somewhat cautiously, and took her hand in his and offered some soothing words. She picked back up, saying that her brother was continuing to work full-time even though he has Stage 3 cancer, because otherwise he'd be without insurance. She herself had recently stopped working to care for her elderly mother and so was without insurance, which meant she couldn't get the dental surgery she needs.

"I don't think it's fair that my brother has to work when he's dying cancer just to keep his insurance," she said.

Obama's response offered further proof that, for all his reputation for uplifting oratory, he generally keeps the temperature turned lower down and is not a practitioner of the "I feel your pain" school of politics. In a serious, level tone not much different than the one he had delivered his speech in, he told Punteney, "First of all, we're all praying for you." He told her he had to watch family members die of cancer, including his mother. And looking up at the crowd, he quickly segued into a policy conclusion -- Punteney's and her brother's plight was a sign of the problem in tying health insurance to work. "One of the things I want to make sure of is that he is provided with health care whether or not he's working or not," he said. And he reminded the crowd that every other developed country in the world provides health insurance to all its citizens, that the U.S. spends more on health care than any other country but "we don't spend it wisely and we don't spend it fairly."

It was a marked contrast to how John Edwards has handled similar moments on the trail. Hearing tales of health system dysfunction, he typically seizes on them, declaring over and over in an angry shout, "This is wrong!" But Punteney said after the event that she appreciated Obama's response even at its lower volume. "You don't have to get outraged," she said. "He seems more down to earth, more mellow. He made eye contact, which means a lot to me."

Punteney elaborated some more on her family's situation. Her brother Ted, 48, does deliveries for Home Depot and other stores. His cancer was first discovered in his lymph nodes about a year and a half ago but he still puts in 50-hour weeks. "He gets real sick. He gets weak. He gets pain so bad he passes out sometimes," she said. He has a three-year-old daughter. Punteney was working as a porter at a nearby casino before quitting to care for her mother after her father's death: "She's not taking care of herself and falls a lot." Having lost her coverage, she is unable to attend to her dental needs and the incipient glaucoma in her eyes. Her only child, a 26-year-old daughter, is going through a nasty divorce.

Punteney said she came to the Obama event because she saw his field office in the nearby small town of Oelwein and walked in out of curiosity. She was leaning toward Edwards before, she said, but now she's for Obama.

--Alec MacGillis

Posted at 4:28 PM ET on Oct 5, 2007
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Hey JPLich, did you know Barack was sick that night?

You might want to consider cutting him a little slack for not being his usual self that night. We all know he has droves of the characteristics you seek.

Posted by: msutt | October 8, 2007 12:21 AM

Well Hilary may not be warm and fuzzy but I'd much rather have someone who puts her money where her mouth is . Right from her time as a young lawyer working pro bono on child rights issues to SCHIP which Hilary and Ted Kennedy were responsible for pushing thru, she has a long history for working in the area of child welfare and healthcare.
Obama on the other hand spoke out against the Iraq war but then joined the senatate to vote again and again and again!! to continue funding it and in essence helping to continue perptuate it. However he still continues to tom tom that he always was, is and will be against this war .He also said that if he had actionable inteligence and Gen Musharaff did not act he would send troops into Pakistan.. isn't that how we got into Iraq .in fact its called the "Bush doctrine of premptive strike" It's the same old policy . Obama is simply a better salesman who has people believeing that his presidency will be different .
The senate recently passed a resolution to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Gaurds a terrorist organisation. Critics of the resolution call it a first move in a move to war against Iran .Clinton voted for it . I disagree with her but at least she took a stand. Obama declined to vote . Of course this way he can claim later on that he was always against a war in Iran !! please if anyone is a hypocrite its Obama !

Posted by: prithimp | October 7, 2007 4:34 PM

My secret is that until a few weeks ago I was a solid Obama supporter. I have come late the Edwards camp.

I changed allegiance following the MSNBC debate moderated (poorly I might add) by Tim Russett that aired not too long ago. The Obama that appeared on the stage (and in previous debate performances) was not the person that I had hoped he might be. His body language spoke of a tentativeness, almost what some might refer to as shyness. His words were uttered with a mild fearfulness.

This was not the charismatic leader that I had hoped to see.

Theatrics is what keeps me glued to political campaigns. I believe that I learn more about a candidate by watching how he or she behaves than by closely examining their policy stances.

Obama's support nationwide seems to have reached a ceiling (at least temporarily). Perhaps no one could have lived up to the hype leading up to his decision to run for the presidency. Nevertheless his rather nonchalant presence is a disappointment to me. Obama's nonchalance, elegance, grace and humility better suit him to be an advisor or a consultant rather than a leader.

Our country badly needs a president who can inspire confidence and pride. The mess left to us by Bush jr will not easily be cleaned up after the next election. We will need a forceful rather than a graceful president. On the democratic side I see no one other than Edwards who exudes the positive energy needed to bring about real change. Clinton and Obama are the conservatives on the democratic side- both too cautious to takes the risks that will be required on both the domestic and international fronts.

Posted by: kolp999 | October 6, 2007 10:24 PM

interesting jpilch. I think that you may be right about your analysis of voter sway, but what you may be wrong about is which candidate is inspiring the emotion that will win 2008. Just go back and read this blog for your proof. I can't speak for others, but the difference for me between your candidate and Obama is that instead of reacting to the plight of this woman with fresh passion, Obama seems to be sharing the plight of this woman. I don't mean that they both have sick relatives, but that Obama's opinion on this issue seem to be formed by an internal set of ideologies that participate with, not react to the world around him. He sees complex issues and he treats them that way. He encounters those who both share and dispute his views and he gives them equal consideration. Both Obama and this woman reflect the disapointment, the abandonment that many Americans feel when faced with the reality that their country does not act in accordance with the ideals that earned America her once-proud legacy around the world. Obama seems not only to recognize this, but to speak candidly about it, propose solutions and remember the emotion that drives both his and his opponents opinions; I think that this is the brains, the brawn and the humility to which the former bloggers referred. I understand your call for a strong decider, but is not Obama's stance, one that reflects solid standards built on the reasoning and emotions that represent our population, the best launching point?

Posted by: kathrynhaughney | October 6, 2007 8:43 PM

All of you seem to let the whole "who we need in office" thing fly right by you in the fog of comment war. We don't need a strong president, or an intellectual president. We need a strong AND intellectual president. A president that uses his/her brain to solve the issues at hand, and his/her strength to back his brain up!!! Barack HAS not only be both, but he IS also privy to America's NEEDS, which the other candidates seem to just exploit for your support.
If you want a REAL president willing to lead America, the most righteous of all nations, then Obama is most definitely the person you should support.


Posted by: kurbster35 | October 6, 2007 7:36 PM

What makes a good president dwg1906? You are right anyone-but-bush will be better. The question remains, "Who among the democratic candidates has the guts to make the tough decisions that the next president will ineviteably have to make?"

Intelligence- which Obama has a great deal of- will not suffice. To take measure of the candidates requires more than determining who is capable of making the best quips at dinner parties.

Bush looking into the soul of Putin is a religious/ visual metaphor. Looking is not feeling- the eye is not the gut. The voter ultimately will not "look into the souls" of the candidates in order to decide whom to vote for. Souls do not lead- they float in the ether. Edwards has more than soul- he is a strong advocate for the disenfranchised- the emphasis on strong. Strength derives from drive- an emotional quality- certainly not cerebral.

Voters will tire of campaign bromides as soon as the real voting begins. Emotion will drive the results- wait and see.

Posted by: kolp999 | October 6, 2007 3:47 PM

Interesting the way the media can never refrain from adding snarkiness to anything they report about Obama. They can't just write something nice and let it stand. that only goes to Hillary who they cannot bow and scrape enough for. But, regardless of what Obama does or says it's got to be commented on nastily.
Senator Obama went to that woman and talked to her and gave comfort in a genuine way not phoney the way Bill use to do. and how Hillary always pretends.
When have the Clintons ever shown an authentic bone in their bodies? never.
Sen. Obama never goes for the fake or tries to be someone he is not. He shows genuine concern and care. I have heard many times of people talking to him and he looks them straight in the eyes and people feel everyone is tuned out and they have his full attention and concern. And they feel he really took the time to listen. he doesn't need to shout or show off like Bill or Hillary. His quiet strength is enough for people and they know he cares.

Posted by: vwcat | October 6, 2007 12:19 AM

A man with a soul? A leader for our times. Obama for president

Posted by: abelone | October 5, 2007 11:58 PM


Your "gut" analysis is funny because for the last 6+ years we have a Prez, who has been making policies based of off his "gut" feeling. He looked into Putin's eyes to see his soul and his gut told him he's an alright man, he used his gut for alot of his decisions. If you have a problem with Obama because you are an Edwards supporter say so, but don't go and use obtuse references to "gut" judgements being needed after the "gut" to bowel policies we have been subjected to under this administration....

Posted by: CoCoSausage | October 5, 2007 11:43 PM

I was at this town hall meeting with Sen. Obama and I can tell you that the entire crowd went silent upon hearing this woman's story. I found Obama's reaction to be sincere and heartfelt. I don't care that his response was subdued and quiet - it was real. That's what separates Obama from HRC. He doesn't need a consultant to soften his image.

Posted by: PrairieRobin | October 5, 2007 10:21 PM


The gut is an underestimated organ. Without motivation, courage and a whole host of other emotional states the brain is merely an underpowered computer.

We are electing a leader of the wealthiest most influential country on our planet. Without a sense of self embedded more in feeling than thought our next president will be as incompetant as Bush jr in knowing what-the-hell to do when he becomes president. You can lump all of the candidates with the exception of Edwards and Guiliani into this camp- suits without a soul.

Posted by: kolp999 | October 5, 2007 9:53 PM

The gut is meant for digestion, not thought. One who thinks with one's gut has not spent enough time developing one's cerebral capacity.

Frankly, the country is in great need of an intellectual returning to the presidency. Senator Obama, it appears, is as comfortable sitting in an academic ivory tower as he is sitting in a diner in Anywhere, America. He has shown the ability to walk with kings yet not lose the common touch. It is time for genuine intelligence and compassion, not poorly rehearsed speeches and the idea of compassion merely as a slogan to create "electability".

Posted by: dgw1906 | October 5, 2007 9:27 PM

Haven't we had enough thought and reason during the last 8 years of Bush jr, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and the network of neocons. It is their all-to-heavy reliance on grand strategy that is responsible for the mess our country is in.

Obama & Clinton (mr. & mrs.) fancy themselves as intellectuals. It is time for bold leadership that summons more from the gut than the brain. Edwards was a a plaintiff's advocate- dealing with raw emotion and a drive for justice.

To Obama, Clinton, Cheney...Gore...politics is an abstract game similar to chess. A real trial is like a battle- to a great trial lawyer instinct and passion trump feeble contemplation. There is no nonpartison or bipartison arena. Triangulation is a remedy for political strangulation. A politics of hope ignores the reality of conflict- real politics is more an emotional than a rational sport.

Temperament, not character, is what divides great leaders from bean-counters.

Posted by: kolp999 | October 5, 2007 8:46 PM

People who claim "canadian health care is terrible" have never talked to a Canadian with a serious illness.

Posted by: kudosdc | October 5, 2007 8:21 PM

jpilch, I find your analysis to be rather one dimensional and actually almost irrelevant to choosing a good president.

The issue is not whether or not a candidate is warm or not, but how they temper their remarks. Obama often does it in a way that I really admire, with thought and reason. Edwards shoots for outrage. Warmth in politics doesn't work like warmth on a temperature scale. Edwards' confrontational rhetoric isn't "warmer" than the other candidates; to me, it's actually somewhat of a turn-off.

What I like about Obama is his ability to listen and understand an issue from all sides. He'll stand his ground, but he doesn't reject you out of hand because you disagree with him. That is the type of presence we need in the White House after the divisive politics that have characterized much of the past two decades.

Posted by: alethiareg | October 5, 2007 8:16 PM

so far ive not seen one rep or dem that id say will level with the american people they give us th same sales pich like a used car dealer trying to sell you a lemmon

Posted by: getsix1 | October 5, 2007 6:51 PM

our life would be not much better in a goverment run heath care they really cant get any programs to run well take ssi medicade. medicare our deparment of ed..our military hospitals. and the canadian health care is terrible half my family is canadian bad system. unless you pay for your own so carefull what you wish for you might get it

Posted by: getsix1 | October 5, 2007 6:40 PM

Seeing and being with a loved one dying of Cancer is a heartbreak that is indiscribable. As an 80 year old woman and a husband 86 , I am a surviver of Ovarian cancer, my husband continues to do manual labor because of health insurance coverage, which I need. Medicare just doesn't do it, and now this rotten sub human wants to take another bite out of SS to cover his war games. and continue to strip us of our dignity.

Torture , he damm well knows his gang of rats does his dirty work. Whatever he says is a rotten lie. Ask Gonzo, he knows. Now that he is out, if he had a backbone, and doesn't have to smile and say yes sir to this Crazy fanatic, he would tell all. Or has he been in a closed door meeting like Dan Rather was?

Republicans in Rudy is nominated - Hillary will just walk right in. Wonderful!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: LOONYBIN2000 | October 5, 2007 6:33 PM

MacGillis writes:
"Obama's response offered further proof that, for all his reputation for uplifting oratory, he generally keeps the temperature turned lower down and is not a practitioner of the "I feel your pain" school of politics."

The distinction he makes between "low temperature" and "high temperature" politicians is interesting. One is not inherently better than the other. The question, however, that can be asked is whether or not our country would be better off in 2009 with a new president who is temperamentally hot or cold?

Bush 2 is colder than Bush 1. Clinton is warmer than Bush 2 but in a subtle way cooler than Bush 1. Did Reagan tend towards hot or cold? His warm congeniality certainly made him emotionally far warmer than Hillary- who on the political thermometer registers at about 0 celcius (the freezing point) - somewhere between Fred Thompson (30 below 0) and Duncun Hunter (2 above).

If Hillary is to be stopped from hastening the start of a new "ice age" a sunnier democratic opponent must emerge to challenge and ultimately defeat her. This is so because the major problems facing our country (Iraq and universal health care) do not lend themselves to being solved by a cold calculating leader (think about the frigid Nixon's attempt to end the war in Viet Nam) like Hillary.

On the repblican side Guliani is ahead because he is a hot Italian- not necessarily because his positions on issues are the most palatable to election voters. The others have not caught fire: Romney is as cool as ice, McCain blows hot and cold, and Thompson's body temperature seems to be about 5 degrees below normal. Interstingly Ron Paul, who packs some heat, is exceeding expectations and Huckabee is stuck in place because his passionate delivery comes off cool- sort of the republican's Gore or Kerry.

Obama, a cool candidate, has a hot support base. At some point the two will cancel each other out and his campaign will burn out.

Edwards, the warmest democratic candiate, has the temperament that I think the electorate will warm to over time.

Hillary and Obama are too close in temperature to Bush 2 and Clinton 1. Can it be said that our country yearns for the warm leadership style of Reagan and Bush 1? I think it does and thats why I think that Edwards will narrowly defeat Guliani in November 2008.

Posted by: kolp999 | October 5, 2007 6:22 PM

I had a similar encounter with Obama in Iowa. After a speech he was shaking hands on his way to another event and was already behind schedule. But when he reached where I was in line, and I mentioned I had a son serving in Iraq and agreed with his foreign policy remarks, he stopped, made very direct eye contact, and spoke genuinely for a time of his concern for my son's safety and to thank him for his service. A politician can't fake what Obama has: Sincerity,honesty, integrity, empathy, service,and intelligence. Clinton seems to believe she's somehow entitled to the presidency because she's relentless and manipulative enough to get herself installed there. As far as I've ever observed, she doesn't project an ounce of sincerity or empathy.

Posted by: literate1 | October 5, 2007 5:54 PM

Am I the only one who remembers wanting to wretch when repeatedly hearing the "I feel your pain" response from the previous Clinton Presidency that just never seemed to ring true, especially with the crooked "smirk" that usually accompanied those words? We've already seen Hillary practicing her "act" while adopting a staged southern accent whn appeaaring in the south, and learning to turn on that "practiced" smile lately in response to complaints that she seemed "plastic". Not everyone wears their heart on their sleeve, and true compassion is in what one believes, feels and does; not in some teary, emotional show that may or may not be faked to win over voters.

I've listened to Obama ad I've read his book. I believe that his compassion is real; a lot more real than the showstopping shouts from Edwards or that tried and true "I feel your pain" mantra from th Clinton's. I think being able to look into someone's eyes with empathy and speak the truth is what really matters, and apparently this woman from Iowa liked what she saw in those eyes that made contact with her's!

Posted by: diksagev | October 5, 2007 5:15 PM

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