Obama Gets on Topic with Women

Election '08

At a fundraising Women's Breakfast at the Hilton Hotel Thursday morning in New York City, the main plot concerned how the Democratic Party was going to address issues that traditionally matter to women and how much cash voters would pony up in return to help elect Barack Obama. The subplot was how Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who appeared together, were getting along.

"Barack and I were talking about the rigors of the campaign trail," Clinton said a few minutes into her remarks. It painted a nice picture: the former rivals chatting backstage, bonding over their shared experience. Politicians are just like us! They make small talk. They try to be friends.

Obama told Clinton she looked somewhat rested. Clinton said she was, somewhat, and she was even trying to exercise every day since liberated from the grueling primary schedule. "As I'm sure you've read," she told the audience, "Barack Obama would get up every morning and go faithfully to the gym. I would get up every morning and get my hair done."

The crowd in the Hilton ballroom, a majority of whom were women, laughed.

"It's one of those Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire things," Clinton said. Zing. Apparently, being friends does not mean that you can't also be just a little bit bitter.

Throughout her speech, Clinton re-iterated the message that women are working harder for less. Issues like wages, health care, and education are important for all Americans, but for women, she said, the stakes are higher: women remain discriminated against at work; women comprise the majority of low-wage earners and therefore also the majority of those without health care; women worry more about whether their children are getting a good education, whether class sizes are small, whether a motivated young person has an opportunity to go to college.

As has been true in her speeches throughout the primary season, Clinton's locus of attention was on the sort of person not likely to be among those eating her breakfast on a white tablecloth at the Hilton ballroom. Instead, Clinton insisted the Democratic Party would pay attention to those women who served in the hotel, getting up at the crack of dawn to go to work and leaving their children at home or in childcare, hoping they would be safe. Fairness is an American value, Clinton insisted, and for a moment I saw the old Hillary, with her jaw set and mettle in her voice.

But for most of the speech, Clinton's tone was soft and her language pitched somewhere between Oprah and Lifetime TV. She acknowledge how hard it was to "turn on a dime." Adjusting to new circumstances, she said, was "a process." It was time to "start a new chapter." The ballroom grew very quiet. Clinton seemed to be revealing something of herself, and it triggered at least in me a response that was half empathy, half fascination for the spectacle of a warrior defeated.

However, one is not taken into Clinton's confidence for very long. In an instant, the personal turned political. "Everyone who voted for me has so much in common with those who voted for Barack Obama," she concluded. There. She had said it: Get over it and move on. I have.

The power that Clinton seems to still wield with her supporters was somewhat astonishing. When Obama's sister, Maya, introduced him, she cited (predictably) the strong women in his life: herself, his mother and grandmother, his wife. "And then there's...um...Senator Clinton." It was a funny but revealing turn of phrase: on the one hand, Clinton was part of the family; on the other hand, she was something beyond it, a mythical force that loomed large in the imaginations of the Obamas.

Indeed, when he took the stage Obama acknowledged that he needed Hillary Clinton, as well as...um...Bill (brother and sister have really mastered the art of the "um"). He also introduced himself as someone who campaigned with Hillary Rodham Clinton, but "didn't do it in heels."

No doubt Obama was playing to his predominantly female audience, but he also had the hang-dog look of a man schooled in the frustration and lack of parity many women experience. When Obama spoke about his wife's feeling of being split in two by the competing demands of work and family, he admitted his pain at being "complicit in some of the struggles she's going through." The fact that Obama was home less than a week in this primary cycle, and that Michelle has left her job and been the primary caregiver for their young daughters, was probably not lost on many of the audience.

With Clinton looking on, Obama raised many of the existential issues I hear women talk about all the time: being worn out, feeling like they have to choose between a career and children, wondering why they can't get more help, worrying about their kids while they were at work and worrying about work while they were with their kids. As is appropriate for a presidential nominee, Obama extrapolated to larger, national concerns, pointing out that women were the backbone of the middle class, and if a woman made only 77 cents to the dollar her family suffered, too.

While it's a relief to hear these issues taken seriously and aired on a national stage, one doesn't have to go much further than the ladies' room to get a snapshot of what Clinton and Obama were talking about.

"Did you try under the welcome mat?" said a female voice from inside a stall, presumably multi-tasking on her cell phone. "How about under the planter? It's not in the door?"

Another women typed furiously on her Blackberry. Another, in a maid's uniform, wiped down a sink.

A casual poll of women around the ballroom revealed that the spectators had been generally happy with the event. Elba Olaya, a banquet services worker picking up the breakfast plates, particularly congratulated Obama and Clinton on their speeches. Although Olaya said she didn't speak English very well -- she's originally from Peru -- she liked what they had said about fair treatment. After 17 years of working without benefits, she had been overlooked for promotion in favor of a man only three years on the job, and had been turned out of her place of employment. The Hilton, she said, was much better because it was unionized.

Hillary Clinton, I reminded her, had said this election was not about the candidates, but about people like her. Olaya beamed. "I like her," she said. "I like him, too, but I voted for her."

If Clinton continues to identify with the underdog, and Obama defers to her as much as his body language on Thursday's stage suggests, then Olaya and others struggling for basic justice and security may find themselves with their own friend in the White House.

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