PHILADELPHIA, Penn. — “One, two, three — Obama!” Hands fly skyward in a mock sports cheer, and a few bubbly volunteers — college students or recent, but experienced, young graduates — set to work, joining others already engaged in “getting out the vote.”
It is March 18, and the remnants of St. Patrick’s Day are apparent in the green, clover-strewn “O’bama” posters plastered on the walls at the Illinois senator’s Philadelphia campaign headquarters.
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The brilliant hues beaming down from above are a reminder that this is not a somber campaign. Large slogan banners, “Yes We Can!” in yellow, orange and green and a rainbow-lettered “Change We Can Believe In,” share the wall space with recognition of the various constituencies backing the campaign: women for Obama, students for Obama, veterans for Obama.
A sign, on the wall, vertically arranged:
O bviously great
B etter than Clinton
“Obviously great.” It was that first word that strikes me. Nothing, part of me acknowledges, is ever obvious.
But that part of me — the journalist — soon faces a second voice as I scan the other lines on the poster. “Better than Clinton?” Maybe. “A leader.” No doubt.
Then: “Memorable, Awesome.” Too simplistic, I think. That’s the reporter in me.
But that momentary brush with bias is frightening.
It is an interesting day for a political reporter. Just hours from now, the Illinois senator will face his greatest challenge yet. For the first time, he will answer the cries of pundits — those of supporters included — disturbed by the well publicized remarks of Obama’s longtime pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.
For the past few months, even I have tried to shelve my political preferences to achieve journalistic objectivity. Today, still, I remain skeptical — of Obama’s ability to allay his critics, of the mania surrounding his campaign, of his, or any, politician’s ability to set aside the will of consultants and address a difficult topic with nuance … and without soundbytes. But today, entrenched in Obamarama, the question remains: Can I stay objective?
And as I look toward the colors and signs that belie the focus and intensity of the volunteers working in this ad hoc office on Sansom Street, another question comes to mind: Should I?
‘Enjoy the Ambience’
The first thing I notice is that no one notices me.
The fourth floor that houses Obama’s headquarters bustles at 9 o’clock in the morning, and even with a notebook and pen, I, the intruder, am not conspicuous.
The three to four dozen people in the large, loft-like room on one side of the building — some staff, but mostly long-term volunteers — give no hint that their candidate is visiting this morning; more experienced volunteers wait near the elevator door directing new hands to the tables where work is plentiful.
Some will answer phones, others will check voter registrations for errors, fixing them as much as is allowed. (If a form lacks a specified party preference, volunteers hope the voter has provided his phone number for verification.)
Since the press staff is at the National Constitution Center, hardly more than a dozen blocks away, where Obama’s speech will shortly occur, I have not yet been given permission to speak with any of the staff or volunteers. Until the press staff returns, I am told to “enjoy the ambience,” which for me includes the large, folding tricycle that steals floor space underneath a map of the Philadelphia.
A stack of voter registrations a couple feet high sits on a table on the side of the room. A middle-aged volunteer waltzes over and notices them.
“Do those need to be entered? It’s exciting there’s so many, but it’s terrifying — so much to do!” she exclaims.
I can only shrug politely. I certainly don’t know, and I wouldn’t want to break my gag order.
By March 24, everyone who wants to vote in the Democratic primary must have registered, giving the room a sense of urgency. But unlike in states where campaigning begins only a few days before the election, volunteers can make a substantial difference in Pennsylvania’s turnout.
I overhear another volunteer who has previously worked in Nevada remark to her colleagues, “Wait, this can actually be fun. This can actually be democracy.”
‘What needs to be done’
By 10 o’clock, Jorge Contreras can’t afford to sit still for long. He’s posted at the elevator with separate sign-up sheets for in- and out-of-state residents, ready to direct the incoming swell of volunteers.
Contreras, a 21-year-old student at the University of San Francisco, hadn’t planned to be here. A resident of San Jose, Calif. — and an independent who says he would not vote for Obama’s opponent if she wins the nomination — he worked first in northern Nevada, where Obama picked up delegates in the January caucuses. Even when they ended, he assumed Nevada would be his sole contribution to the campaign.
But after Obama’s disappointments in Texas and Ohio, he decided to make the cross-country trip.
“I wasn’t going to take the semester off,” he tells me later that day, but Hillary Clinton’s LAW ’73 “dirty tactics” convinced him he needed to assist once again. “Philly,” he adds, “is the city to be in right now.”
Dianne Clark, a middle-aged New Jersey resident who has come across the river to help in Philadelphia, would also later remark that it is many of the young volunteers who have been working in multiple states already, and that people like herself take direction from those with more experience — regardless of age.
“We older people do what needs to be done,” Clark says.
Despite how crowded headquarters is this morning, volunteers say today is an off-day as far as numbers go, nothing compared to the packed Saturdays. And certainly, not everyone has taken part in primary campaigning before.
“I’m middle-aged and cynical,” grunts a white-haired woman as she asks for an assignment. “I don’t usually do this kind of thing.”
Even vacationers stop by. For visitors in the city for just a day, the downtown location makes headquarters an easy stop on tour.
Still, these people may soon be outdone by another fellow traveler.
“We just had someone call from France and say he wants to come volunteer,” Clark says.
At 10:45 a.m., two laptops switch to direct television feeds from the Constitution Center.
But even as Obama begins to speak, few people in the room break from their phone calls and envelope stuffing. All but eight are apparently convinced that their volunteer efforts are more important than listening to the speech live. Shuffling papers and the tap-tap-tap of keys mingle with the first words of the address.
Then, something becomes clear to me.
This is no ordinary speech.
“For we have a choice in this country,” Obama says, his deep voice rising. “We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle … as fodder for the nightly news.”
That’s when I look up. In my hand, I feel a pen and a notebook; they seem suddenly foreign to me.
I slip both into my pocket. And I just listen.
“Or,” he concludes, “at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.’ ”
‘On the table’
Immediately, commentators begin dissecting the content of the speech to decipher its political ramifications. His rejection of his pastor’s words — but not of his pastor — will be, I’m sure, derided by some who oppose him as an insufficient response. But for myself, and these immobile volunteers and staff, the speech looks forward, not backward.
The sounds of a working office can no longer be heard, and the new volunteers filtering in immediately approach the gathering circle of viewers.
What started as eight became 12, and then two dozen. People joined in gradually, nodding, mute, a multi-generational, multiracial cross-section of the population. By the time his speech finished, nearly everyone was crowded around the two laptop screens. But a few people still faithfully manned the phones and the entrance.
As people returned to their desks following his final words, the room hushed. The volunteers appeared excited to have seen something entirely unexpected, perhaps not wanting to rupture the unity that was as present here as anywhere else.
Jillian Pirtle, 25, said Obama had “knocked it out of the park,” a metaphor that many of the volunteers came to independently.
“He is going to be [the] president to tell America what it needs to hear,” Pirtle said. “We’re at a turning point. There’s always a point like this — will the movement be able to survive? And then there is that push, and it’s through.”
But there were no false hopes; if Obama is to be president, it will be as much by the volunteers’ continued efforts as by his speeches, and so, no sooner had it ended than people were sitting back around the tables, making phone calls, sifting through stacks of registrations and licking stamps.
I sat down with four volunteers stuffing envelopes who were on the older end of the spectrum, that is, beyond their early twenties. They were clustered around a short table almost entirely covered with stacks of handouts. I gingerly scoot closer, not wanting to interrupt an already-lively conversation about the speech.
One of them, Deb Chase, a retired teacher, had worked previously this year in Ohio and said she planned to go on and volunteer in North Carolina. She said she had often canvassed before, but enjoyed the envelope stuffing more because it gave her a chance to discuss the issues with her fellow volunteers.
“As a teacher, I liked how much the focus had to do with education,” she said.
Another woman at the table shook her head: “For people to dismiss this as an important issue shows a lack of understanding.”
The next table over, “Lisa,” a graduate from Spelman College who now works in outreach efforts in West Philadelphia neighborhoods, said the most important part of the speech was that it happened.
“Everyone wants to put up their guard while talking about race. [Obama] wants to put in on the table,” she said. Solving racial problems, she said, “means people sharing their experiences.”
I am back in New Haven now. For months, I never could quite get caught up in the jargon of “change.”
But that day in Philadelphia turned everything on its head.
I saw a politician who did my job for me: He raised nuance, he told the truth — and it was not comfortable. He made no false promises, raising a matter that he openly admitted can not be solved in a mere eight years. He was not careful.
I was not careful either. And my notebook is still in my pocket.