By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 28, 2008
ANDERSON, Ind. -- Sen. Barack Obama came this past weekend to this factory town, where the loss of hundreds of jobs at the Delphi auto parts plant was only the latest blow, and told 2,000 voters that the way to fix things was not just to vote for him -- but to join a bottom-up mass movement to change the way government works.
He didn't put it that way exactly. But in a noteworthy shift, the Illinois senator is trying to reach working-class and middle-class voters by arguing more explicitly that the reform ideas driving his campaign can address the economic troubles that threaten their way of life. Supplanting lobbyist influence with citizen activism, uniting the country beyond petty partisan gamesmanship and bringing more candor to government, he argues, are not just abstract goals, but concrete steps that can level the playing field and lead to a more equitable distribution of the nation's wealth.
"When we push back the special interests, when we unify the country, when we speak honestly with the American people about our challenges, there's nothing we can't accomplish, nothing we can't do," he said here. "When we unify the country, we will change our economy."
Obama hopes the message, still being refined, will bring a victory in the May 6 primary here and help him close out the battle for the Democratic nomination against New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. But interviews here suggested it is not an easy sell. Obama's faith in the power of numbers has taken hold with young and engaged voters, but it is harder to convince Americans who have grown dissociated from their government that they have a role to play beyond going to the polls every few years.
Obama has struggled for months with adapting his trademark reform agenda for a "new kind of politics" to a moment when voters are more worried about making their mortgage payments or keeping their jobs. Typically, "process" platforms like Obama's have fared best with higher-income voters and at times of broad prosperity. And, with the exception of a few states, Obama has lost lower-income, less-educated white voters to Clinton.
Obama did not lack proposals for what he would do as president -- his planks took up a whole section of his stump speech. But some voters were left wondering how he, with his scant Washington experience, would reach those goals, because he did not always make the link between that policy agenda and the loftier talk of national transformation that bracketed it.
Stumping through Indiana, he has made the connection explicit, even if it means losing some of the lyricism of his pitch. Obama now presents his reform ideas in list form (lists, a favorite of Bill and Hillary Clinton, had been rare in Obama speeches) and then explains how those changes in approach would produce results.
Most notably, he stated more clearly than before that he would be able to push through advances such as expanded health-care coverage and a more progressive tax system because of the popular mandate he hopes to win and ongoing pressure from the vast grass-roots organization his campaign has developed.
"When the American people work together, we cannot be stopped," he said in Marion. "When people are unified, ordinary folks -- black, white, Hispanic -- when they come together and decide that change needs to come, then change will happen."
He gave as an example his plan to broadcast on C-SPAN the meetings he would hold with industry representatives and congressional leaders to push health-care reform. "If you see a member of Congress who's carrying water for the drug companies instead of carrying your water, you'll be able to hold them accountable," he said in Anderson.
Obama uses this call for a permanent grass-roots mobilization to distinguish himself from Clinton, who he says is too invested in the existing system. "You know I will be fighting for you because I will be accountable to you," he said in Marion. "You funded my campaign, you created the political organization that got me here today, you brought me to this dance, and I dance with the one that brung me."
But his grass-roots vision also allows him to combat critics' claims that his campaign is all about him. And it dovetails with his broader call for self-reformation in the citizenry, whether he's telling parents to limit their kids' television watching or urging consumers to be more energy-efficient.
Obama's opponents counter that he does not live up to his own message, asserting, among other things, that his plan to overhaul trade policy is pandering. Even among admirers, there are doubts.
"A lot of it is wishful thinking," said Norma Hampton, 48, a postal worker in Anderson who backs Obama. "We're so ingrained in this two-party system of fighting that I don't know if our problems can ever be solved. Some things will definitely change if he gets elected, but there's going to be a lot of fighting. Politics is a dirty business."
Others said, though, that they saw what Obama was driving at. "A lot of people are really fed up with the deadlock we have seen. There's going to be a renewed spirit of cooperation. The pendulum feels like it's swinging back," said Michael Mitchell, 58, a railroad worker in Anderson. In Marion, Shari Paul, 58, a human resources worker, regarded the energy of the crowd as a sign that Obama's vision may be realistic. "If the people are behind him, we're a powerful force," she said. "We all have the same ideas. We're all hurting except the big cats."
While in the past Obama entered events to a rousing U2 song, he now walks in, without music, with a local resident who has been hurt by the tough economy, an approach similar to Clinton's. The resident speaks briefly, and then Obama opens by listing job loss and pay statistics for the town he is in.
David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, said the shift was just an attempt to better communicate the basic themes of the campaign.
"The message isn't new, but it's always been a work in progress," he said. It "has never been about change for change's sake. It's always been about a vehicle to produce progress that you can see in people's lives."