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The Two Obamas

By Peter Slevin
INDIANAPOLIS -- Presidential campaigns play out in a series of overlapping dramas, a chain of one-act plays sometimes scripted and sometimes pure improv. Scene by scene, heroes and villains emerge and recede as the principals vie for the audience's affection.

The candidates play many roles, but this campaign has presented few juxtapositions as stark as Sen. Barack Obama's performance this week ahead of Tuesday's primaries in North Carolina and Indiana. Wearing a suit coat and speaking in somber tones, Obama has twice called reporters together to push back against what he called "a bunch of rants that aren't grounded in truth" by his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

This Obama, struggling to keep his insurgent campaign from sinking under his long association with Wright, is the one getting the national headlines and the intensive scrutiny of the pundits and the blogophiles. The consensus driving the press conferences and the one-on-one interviews is that Obama has much explaining to do if he hopes to preserve his candidacy.

Obama's staff is worried about an emerging story line that it feels largely powerless to control. Although the Illinois senator retains a sizeable lead among the delegates that will choose the Democratic nominee in August, the rise of racial politics and the resurgence of questions about Obama's judgment and mettle have them concerned.

Yet Obama is playing another role amid all the interviews and the private strategy sessions and the calls to superdelegates. Day after day, he stands, with his sleeves rolled up, on raised platforms in high school and college gymnasiums where he delivers a lively and upbeat campaign pitch that invariably brings supporters to their feet, clapping and cheering.

In these performances, Obama barely mentions Wright. He mixes the themes of his campaign with policy -- most recently emphasizing his opposition to a temporary suspension of the federal gas tax -- and his personal story. Toward the end of remarks that typically last anywhere from 25 to 50 minutes, Obama has started grouping Wright with an array of issues that critics consider character questions.

The riff echoes lines that Obama used during his 2004 Senate campaign and the early stages of his White House run, when he and his wife Michelle introduced him as the skinny black guy with the funny name. If only people could know him, they said, they would see that he shares their values. Now, long after he hoped it would be necessary, he makes similar references that carry an edge, an assurance and a plea.

"You can see my opponents realize they don't have the better argument, so what they're now saying is, 'I don't know about Obama. We've got to know more about him,'" Obama told a late-night crowd of more than 17,000 people at the University of North Carolina, one of the largest of his 15-month campaign. "'He doesn't wear a flag pin. His former pastor says something. We don't know what his values are. We don't know if he's patriotric. He's got a funny name. Sounds Muslim.'"

Obama then pivoted to talk about his upbringing as a child born to a single mother two years before his father walked out. He tells of his Kansas grandparents enduring the Depression then going to work, his grandfather in the Army in Europe during World War II and his grandmother on an assembly line at a bomber factory.

He described his rise through top universities to the U.S. Senate and then how Michelle Obama moved from a working-class Chicago upbringing to attend Princeton and Harvard and a place at the threshold of the Oval Office as first lady, a line that drew loud cheers that continued to build through his peroration.

"Now here's my point. You want to know what my values are? You want to know about my patriotism?" Obama said in Chapel Hill, a trace of incredulity and defiance in his voice. "My patriotism is rooted in the fact that my story, Michelle's story, it is not possible anywhere else on earth. That the American dream, despite this country's imperfections, has always been there.

"The idea that each of us can grab for that dream, grab for what others might not believe is possible. That there are ladders of opportunity. That all of us can climb. That we're all created equal. That we're all endowed with certain inalienable rights, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness."

By this time, the crowd was on its feet as Obama's voice rose to a spirited shout.
"That we are willing to defend those liberties. That we're willing to shed blood for those liberties, we're willing to speak out for those liberties. That we are willing to fight to make sure that they are available for the next generation, and the generation after that and the generation after that, and we're always making America better.

"And we're not willing to settle for what the cynics tell us we have to accept. That we can make this country more just and more equal and more prosperous and more unified. That's why I love this country. That's why you love this country! That's what this election's about! That's what we're fighting for!"

Obama called out above cheers that grew ever louder as he drove toward his finish.

"That's why I need you to vote tomorrow and Thursday and Friday and Saturday and Tuesday," Obama explained. "And if you will stand with me, we will win this election. And you and I will transform the country and transform this world. Thank you, everybody. God bless you!"

The speechmaking done, Obama's voice gave way to music as he waded into the buzzing crowd, another performance over and many more to come.

By Washington Post Editors  |  April 30, 2008; 2:26 PM ET
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