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Obama's Message Evolving

A young Obama audience in Boston. (Getty).

By Alec MacGillis
CHICAGO -- As voters in more than 20 states turn out for primaries and caucuses today and the nation awaits the results, it's a good moment to pause and take quick stock of the message that Barack Obama has been carrying across the country, and how it has evolved in recent months.

Much of the message is the same as when Obama was stumping through Iowa last summer and fall. There is the same emphasis on national reconciliation, the same joke about his appeal to some Republicans, the same opening line about the stakes being too high for the country to settle for status quo political games: "We are in a defining moment in our history: Our nation is at war, our planet is in peril, and the dream that so many generations fought for feels like it is slipping away."

But there is a crucial difference in the way this message is now presented. Last fall, Obama would tell voters that they could look forward to this November, when George W. Bush would no longer be on the ballot -- but he would then quickly move on to note that this alone was not enough, that Democrats shouldn't settle for just getting the White House back, that they needed to think about bringing about a whole new kind of politics, the crux of his argument for himself instead of Hillary Clinton.

There was a problem with this presentation: Obama's crowds would start to cheer so loudly at his mention of Bush's departure that it would all but drown out the point he wanted to make.

Obama seems to have grasped this and tried to adapt to the obvious reality, that Democratic voters like the new politics talk fine, but they also like some partisan red meat, and they like to know that their candidate will be able to carry the party's standard into battle against the Republicans. These days, he delivers the first half of the riff about Bush leaving office more forcefully. And when the crowd roars -- it is invariably the biggest applause line of his speech -- he stops his speech, smiles, and lets the crowd roar as long as it likes. And then he piles on some more partisan fodder: "The era of Scooter Libby justice, Brownie incompetence and Karl Rove politics will be over." And the crowd roars again. And only then does he segue into the point he was setting up for all along: "But it's easy to be against something.... the American people don't just want to be against something, they want to be for something."

There are other changes as well. Much of the speech now consists of criticisms that have been made of him in recent months that he has absorbed and turned back against the opposition. To those who say it would be taking a risk to elect someone so new to Washington, he replies that the real risk is in having "the same old folks doing the same old thing over and over and expecting different results." To those who argue that his talk about hope is mere airy wishful thinking, he replies that "nothing worthwhile has ever happened except someone somewhere was willing to hope," before rattling off a litany of the country's greatest hits moments, from the Revolution to the civil rights movement.

This defense of his hope rhetoric has served as the segue into another addition to his pitch: the challenges of his early life. Polls and results of the early primaries show that Obama does not fare as well with working-class voters as does Clinton. It is not surprising, then, that Obama has added a whole riff about the fact that he talks a lot about hope because without it, "the odds of my being here today would not be good." "I was born to a single mom. Raised by a single mom and grandparents. I wasn't born into wealth or born into fame," he told a crowd of 17,000 in Hartford, Conn., yesterday. "All I had was love and education and some hope."

One constant in his message is a platform that is remarkably liberal in its details. The National Journal raised eyebrows last week when it ranked Obama's 2007 voting record as the most liberal in the Senate -- a ranking that was admittedly an imperfect measure because of the many votes Obama missed while on the campaign trail.

How, some asked, could Obama be winning so many independents and even Republicans if he's that liberal? But the fact is, the agenda Obama lays out on the stump is standard left-leaning fare: raising the minimum wage every year, raising taxes on the wealthy, cutting taxes for low- and middle-income seniors, a mortgage interest deduction for low-income people who don't itemize their taxes, a greater emphasis on diplomacy overseas, etc. His biggest applause lines, other than his anti-Bush barb, are almost always his call for more music and arts education in schools, and his promise of a $4,000 college tuition tax credit in return for community service.

It is a platform that, delivered by others, might well be viewed as hewing to long-standing, traditional liberal notions. Yet Obama wraps it into his message of national transformation, making it sound part of a whole new package, and by the time he gets to his trademark crescendo conclusion, every person in the arena is standing: "There's a time in every generation when that spirit of hopefulness has to come through, when each of us has to cast aside the doubt and the cynicism and we decide to join hands and remake this country," he said in Hartford yesterday. "This is our moment, this is our time, and if you will stand with me and vote for me on Tuesday ... if you are not willing to settle for what the cynics tell you that you have to accept ... but you are willing to reach for what is possible, then I promise you, we will not just win the primary, we will win the general election and you and I will transform this country and we will change the world."

By Web Politics Editor  |  February 5, 2008; 2:27 PM ET
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