Dan Balz's Take
Obama's Thursday Night Task
By Dan Balz
DENVER -- When she spoke to the Democratic convention on Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton asked her supporters: "Were you in this campaign just for me?" It was a telling question designed to force her loyalists to think about the stakes of the election.
Barack Obama needs to ask and answer the same question on Thursday night. He needs, in the estimation of many Democrats at this convention, to say to the millions of voters still making up their minds that his presidential campaign "is not about me."
The Republicans are working hard to make Americans believe that he thinks the opposite. The celebrity ads, the description of Obama as "The One" and the undercurrent of commentary that he is self-absorbed all are designed to make it more difficult for Obama to connect directly with the voters who will decide this election. Thursday's speech is the moment for him to answer back.
To be fair to Obama, he has always advanced the argument that he is merely a vehicle for the aspirations of others. In his announcement speech in Springfield, Ill., on that frigid winter day in 2007, he put it this way:
"This campaign can't only be about me," he said. "It must be about us. It must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle of your hopes and your dreams. It will take your time, your energy and your advice to push us forward when we're doing right and let us know when we're not."
That message spawned a movement that helped Obama defeat the Clinton forces in the long battle for the Democratic nomination, a movement of people who will celebrate their remarkable achievement Wednesday evening when Obama is formally nominated as the first African American to lead a major party ticket in the country's history.
That movement is not one composed mostly of party regulars and party insiders, although there are plenty of them who count among Obama front line. They are instead a coalition of the young who are getting their first taste of the excitement of a political movement and older voters whose sense of idealism and possibility has been rekindled by Obama's powerful appeal.
They are well represented enough in the Pepsi Center in Denver but the convention floor is still more representative of party insiders than the citizen army at the heart of his campaign. The nation will see this movement in full when Obama takes the stage at Invesco Field on Thursday night before a stadium packed with perhaps 80,000 people -- and they are likely to speak with a roar when he arrives to speak to them.
That army and the enthusiasm behind it lies at the heart of Obama's organizing strategy for the fall campaign. Obama has built his campaign team around a cadre of political organizers who believe that one of the great underwritten stories of this election could be the enthusiasm gap between the McCain and Obama candidacies and their capacity to convert that energy into a turnout operation that will change the shape of the electorate in November.
Obama's campaign still belongs to them but they are not the only -- and probably not the prime -- audience the candidate must be thinking about when he speaks on Thursday. The voters now most critical to his hopes of winning the nomination are those who are not likely to become part of any political movement, who are not motivated primarily with appeals to change politics as we know it.
These are voters who want or need something from their government. They are receptive to appeals for change, but the changes they envision are not those of political process but of programs and actions. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, the host governor at this convention, said they are people like one of his brothers, a diesel mechanic.
"What my youngest brother cares most about as a diesel mechanic is that his kids are educated, that they're educated well, and that he has some way to put his kids through college," Ritter told The Post Wednesday.
Ritter said these voters care whether they have affordable health care, an affordable mortgage and whether they will have to take a second job in order to assure that those kids can get to college, even if they never did. The biggest question on their minds, he added, is whether Obama has a plan to create jobs and opportunities that will allow them to achieve those goals.
That means Obama's message must not only be that his campaign is about them -- and not about him -- but that he be able to describe for them how he will do what Ritter says he must do. That's been an underlying concern here this week, voiced in both public and private, raising the stakes for Obama on Thursday.
In the end, every convention -- at least those in the modern era that are heavily scripted -- comes down to one speech. The nominee's moment in prime time defines how people remember what happened, about whether a convention was a success or a missed opportunity. Everything else is prelude.
Thursday night will be all about Barack Obama and to some extent the cheering crowd at the Broncos' football stadium. But his message must start to resonate with those who want the campaign and the next administration to be about them.
Posted at 5:00 PM ET on Aug 27, 2008
Dan Balz's Take
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