Oprahlooza-Obamarama: Did it work?

For me? Not so much. For some? Absolutely.
By Becci Robbins

When it was all said and done, the Oprah-Obama Love Fest on Sunday in Columbia was long on platitudes and short on substance. I left feeling vaguely disappointed and sporting the kind of headache that comes from squinting for hours into the sun and slowly roasting in the freakish December heat. In the nosebleed section of the cavernous Williams-Brice Stadium. With no water.

But the rally had its moments, and the crowd itself was spectacular. It’s not often that people gather here and cheer together, not unless there is a ball involved. And it’s rare to see such a diverse collection of folks feeling a shared sense of hope that someone just might lead us out of the dark hole the Bush administration has fashioned for us. And then there was Oprah, girl. I mean, there she was, in three dimensions. Live and in living color. She gave a speech that, frankly, was stronger than Obama’s. Again and again, the crowd erupted into wild applause.

Obama Rally

To see more photos from the event, check out our photo album. To view short video clips of the rally, click here.

So it was a sweet vibe in Williams-Brice Stadium on Sunday, and I’m glad for that. But I wanted more. I’d seen Obama during his first visit to Columbia, which was exciting (the seemingly endless primary season had not yet taken its toll). Months later – and after taking considerable heat for lacking specifics on key policy positions – Obama gave much the same spiel. It was not the evolution I’d hoped for.

So I remain camped in the fattest Democratic voter demographic: the Undecideds. I never thought I’d find myself here, as I usually gravitate early and eagerly toward a candidate. This time, I could live with any of them but am excited by none of them. In fact, it seems like the only people getting excited about a candidate are paid to be.

Most of my friends are still uncommitted, although there’s a lot of leaning going on. Before the Obama rally, some friends invited us to tailgate with them, and what struck me was the lack of enthusiasm for any of the campaigns. One was leaning toward Clinton, a few – as always happens when Lefties congregate – lamented that Kucinich was right on all the issues but unelectable, “bless his heart.” Most said they were leaning toward Edwards. But with no apparent passion.

The same dynamic was at work last month at the SC Progressive Summit, which involved representatives of some 50 organizations. We had a free-wheeling session about the candidates, and invited people to share their thoughts. We followed it with a straw poll. Kucinich won, and Obama came in a close second, followed by Edwards and Clinton. I didn’t know which name I would write down until I was writing it. If you’d asked me two minutes earlier or two minutes later, I might have voted differently. That’s how undecided I am.

I had hoped the Obama rally would clarify things for me, but it didn’t. But it did for my friend Kevin Gray, who called Sunday night to talk about the rally. He was underwhelmed by Obama’s performance, which struck him as empty rhetoric. “I didn’t think he said anything insightful or particularly inspiring. You throw Bush and Cheney’s name out on the line and the crowd goes mad. Throw in Martin Luther King lines and the crowd goes mad. But there was no core message. i would like to hear – at this point of stress and uncertainty in America – more about challenging power. He needs a speech writer.”

He pointed out what he thought were some tactical errors, like mentioning the USC Gamecocks but not recognizing any of the black colleges in Columbia. “Most people in the stadium didn’t go to the university. Many of them had never been in the stadium before.”

Kevin was state coordinator for Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, and said Obama’s message was missing the concept of “a rising tide lifts all boats,” the idea that resonated in Jesse’s campaign. “There was no concept of ‘we,’ no sense of constituent groups coming together.”

He said he went to the rally with no expectations. “I went to see the spectacle. With all this race talk, you’re going to go see the black guy – but he’s not the black guy. All of the candidates have the white-guy model, every one of them.”

So who’s Kevin leaning toward at this point? “If i had to vote right now I’d vote for Edwards. He’s bringing the term ‘working class’ into the debate. That little pink house is stuck in my head.”

While Kevin was put off by it, the rally worked for some folks. My friend Steve Hait (who designed and manages the Progressive Network’s Web site) went with his wife, Christine, his daughter, Sofi, and her 7-year-old friend. He said if he had to vote today he’d probably choose Obama. Christine, who was on the fence before the event, now says she’ll vote for him. And Sofi, well, she was an Obama girl all along. She went to the senator’s first Columbia rally and was impressed enough that days later, when kids in her class were asked to name someone famous, they blurted out Superman and Britney Spears. Sofi said, “Barack Obama!”

Steve said he was glad he went. “I felt good being there with my daughter and her friend. It was just relaxed and happy.” He was a little irked that at the door he’d had to give up the snacks and drinks he’d brought, only to be offered bottled water inside for $3.75. But other than that he had a great time, and left feeling more inclined to vote for Obama.

He thinks the pundits who call Obama too inexperienced are wrong. His community organizing background and demonstrated commitment to working on behalf of labor and poor people are exactly the credentials Steve is looking for in a candidate. “I have a hard time thinking of Hillary like that.”

So, my unscientific survey of friends shows Lefties all over the map. Any of the Democratic candidates would be light years better than Bush, we all agree. And wouldn’t it be great to make history by electing the first black president of the United States? The first woman? A guy who’ll fight for the working poor?

Yes, indeed.

Unlike our Republican brethren, who seem unhappy with their slate of candidates, Democrats are in the envious position of voting FOR someone rather than the lesser of evils. This, my friends, is progress.

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