Barack Obama's Democratic Insurgency: Poised for an SC Victory?
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As the afternoon sun slipped behind a cold grey sky, Samantha Wilson, a university educator from Anderson, a small town in South Carolina's upstate region, leaned on a fence at the Clemson University Amphitheatre and waited for her choice in Saturday's Democratic Primary to arrive. Earlier in the day, she said her doctor told her that his mother, an 80-year-old white woman, didn't like Hillary Clinton and would not vote for Barack Obama "because he was black." Wilson, who is dark-skinned, said they shrugged. But that got her thinking about Obama's background and upbringing.
"If she can be excused for not voting for him because he's black, then why shouldn't people vote for him because he's black, or because he's bi-racial," she said. "Let's not forget about that. He is the best of both worlds, black and white. I think he is the most transcendental person we have ever had to run for president."
Transcendental is not an adjective usually associated with presidential candidates. But it is an apt description for the Obama campaign's view of itself and its message of being the only Democratic candidacy that can bring real and dramatic change to Washington's entrenched ways of governing. Obama said he could do that, unlike his chief rival, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, because political ties and legacies would not burden him.
"Everywhere I go, people are ready for something new; that they are ready to write a new chapter in American history," Obama told a crowd of several thousand students at South Carolina's Clemson University, his first of three stops on the day before the primary. "I tell people, if you are ready for change, then change will happen."
The Clemson rally was a fitting finale for a true grassroots insurgency. The Obama campaign looks like every insurgent presidential campaign -- except it won the Iowa Caucuses and is poised, if polls are to be believed, to win South Carolina on Saturday. The headquarters in the state capital is overrun with volunteers, particularly young people and people of color, who enthusiastically were deployed on Friday with door hangings, lawn signs, stickers, flyers and google maps with destinations across the state.
Obama is benefiting from a Democratic Party electorate that, in South Carolina, is half African-American. But his campaign also draws people who don't merely seek good government or acquiesce to the art of the possible on Washington's terms. Instead, it attracts people who have heard a moral calling in a message of moving past partisan divisions and creating a true populist storm that demands results on major issues.
"Change in America does not happen from the top down," Obama told the Clemson University audience, elicting cheers. "It happens from the bottom up. ... If we could join our voices together, I place my faith in the American people."
Like Corazon Aquino, who became president of the Philippines in 1985 after leading a "people power" revolution, he tells audiences that he did not dream of running for the White House. But the once-reluctant candidate said he was propelled by what the Rev. Martin Luther King called the "fierce urgency of now." Now, almost a year after he announced his bid on the Illinois Statehouse steps where Abraham Lincoln lingered, Obama has fine-tuned his pitch, telling voters, "If you are ready for change, we can" reform Washington's ways and policies on a long liberal to-do list, from expanding childcare to funding education to ending the war in Iraq to achieving energy independence to forcing Detroit to build cars that get 40 miles per gallon.
"I proposed this in Detroit, in front of the automakers," he said. "When I said it to them, the room was very quiet. Nobody clapped. Part of what we need in the next president is somebody who will say the truth, not say what you want to hear..."
After drawing cheers for his boldness, he continued, "If you believe in change, we can have an Environmental Protection Agency that believes in the environment. ... If you believe in change, we can have a Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department that believes in Civil Rights... If you believe in change, we can have a Federal Emergency Management Agency that can manage emergencies."
Obama said his top opponent, Hillary Clinton, has told people his message of hope and change was naive. "People start telling you don't believe in change," he said. "You might be inspired. You might like his ideas. But he is not ready. He has not been in Washington long enough." But people "are not buying it," Obama said, saying the country is tired of "the same old people, doing the same old things. ... We need a new spirit."
He summed up by saying being hopeful was not naÃ¯ve, but a defining American trait. The country's founders, the abolitionists who freed the slaves, the women who won the right to vote, the generation that defeated Hitler's Germany, and the Civil Rights movement, all had hope, Obama said. "That is what hope is -- imagining and struggling for what did not seem possible before. That is the moment we are in right now." And talking directly to thousands of students before him, he continued, "You are the face of the movement because change in America has always started with young people. We are counting on you."
Needless to say, Obama is also counting on the students to turn out and support him in Saturday's Primary election. Obama has essentially given this same speech in previous primary and caucus states; parts of it also appear in a recently launched TV ad. Yet Obama's words seem to be working, inspiring many voters in South Carolina to support him and his message of change.
"He reminds me of John F. Kennedy," said Willis Kelly, a white retired contractor, who said he and his wife also have seen Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in recent days. "I like hearing him speak. He's very eloquent ... I think he can bring the Republicans and Democrats together. The way it is right now, they keep on fighting each other."
"I am going to support him," said J. L. Patrick, an African-American man with a son in the Army, "but it will take 6 to 8 years to get all those troops back, not one year. ... We need a change."
Adrienne Friday, an African-American engineering student, said she was leaning toward Obama "more so than any of the other candidates." She explained, "After seeing the debates and everything, some of the candidates are treating the campaign too much as a competition, and not enough about the long-term good of the country. ... He's not just about winning and saying he's president."
On Saturday, South Carolina's vote indeed will be transcendental. African-American voters may not be able to transcend racial pride, a prominent state senator predicted on Friday. Women many not be able to transcend supporting the first potential women president. And others may support John Edwards, saying his fighting spirit and stands best position him for challenging a Republican in the fall.
But if the state's pundits, pollsters and politicians are right, it will be Obama's message of hope and change that will draw people from across the usual dividing lines to produce a victory for a candidate promising a new day and new way in American politics.
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at AlterNet.org and co-author of " What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election ," with Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman (The New Press, 2006).