Did Obama Throw a Town Hall Meeting or a Religious Revival?

Categories: Politics
Jonathan Finley
For more photos from yesterday's town hall meeting, there's a slideshow right here.

When I got back from Barack Obama’s town hall meeting at Duncanville High School last night, my friend Jeff called and said, “So, how was hanging out with the black Jesus?” Seems he’d had dinner with some Hillary Clinton operatives who grumbled about running a campaign against a religious movement. Yup. Pretty much. Some of the 2,000-plus Obama supporters around me yesterday afternoon nodded their heads and rocked back and forth as he spoke, at key moments shouting “Uhhhh-huh!” and “That’s right!”

At one point, a star-struck fan in the stands called out, “I love you!” Obama responded in mid-sentence with tempered charm: “I love you back.” Then continued on with his poetic prescription for a new America, which you'll see in Jonathan Finley's video after the jump (and which Obama will deliver again in a few hours in Fort Worth).

Let’s face it -- the man’s got something going on. Sure, there are those who dismiss his appeal as “cult-like.” Some merely and reasonably question his substance, while others, like the wacked-out talk show host who recently embarrassed John McCain by ominously repeating Obama’s middle name as if performing an exorcism, take it to the next level. (Though none more so than this Web site, which Schutze e-mailed to the staff under the subject, “No one’s perfect”).

From Obama’s remarks last night in Duncanville (and the night before in Ohio), it’s clear he’s determined to confront the criticism head-on. Comfortably pacing the stage, he imitated the naysayers who have written off his supporters: “Oh, they’re infatuated,” he said, mimicking a sour face. “You need solutions, not speeches.” The crowd booed. “That ignores the 20 years I’ve spent working on these issues,” he went on, outlining his background as a community organizer, teacher and politician.

“You’re not romantics," he said. "Being hopeful doesn’t mean you don’t know the barriers that stand between you and your dreams. It won’t be easy to bring health care to every American. If it were easy, it already would have been done … Nothing worthwhile in this country has ever happened, but that somebody somewhere was willing to hope!”

He was headed to the crescendo now, and everyone was with him. They were on their feet -- yelling, cheering him on as he listed American milestones from the ending of slavery to the settling of the West to women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement. “That’s hope, Dallas! And that’s the opportunity we have in this election. This is our moment and this is our time!”

Now, before he hit the cult theorists straight-on, he was more careful than in the past to pair his broad messages of change and hope with concrete policy proposals, as in: “Ordinary people can do extraordinary things when given the chance” was mentioned alongside providing more federal funding for kids to attend college in exchange for community service. “We’ll invest in you, and you invest in America,” he said. “Together, we’ll march this country forward.”

And, more specifics: “Restoring a sense of fairness to our economy” went with ending the Bush tax cuts for the high-tier income brackets and expanding tax breaks for middle class working families, as well as putting $150 billion over 10 years into the green energy sector to offset emissions and create jobs. And, “You’ll have a president in me who’s taught the Constitution, believes in the Constitution and will defend the Constitution,” followed pledges to close Guantanamo and end extraordinary rendition and torture.

During the question and answer portion, he touched on independence (“I want people around me who are gonna stand up to me when I don’t know what I’m talking about … I don’t want just yes people behind me”), immigration (“We’re a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws," etc. etc.), and integrity (“I don’t take PAC money. I don’t take money from federal lobbyists. I don’t have strings attached to me. The only people I owe are you. But I want to be held accountable like anyone else. We’re gonna put our budgets online …”)

And then, for those who think that all this is a bunch of pie-in-the-sky hogwash? “I’m not promising to solve all your problems over night,” he said. “Here’s what I’m gonna promise: I’m gonna promise that we’re gonna get America back on track.”

The most vocal listeners were of course already won over at this point, but I wondered if the performance had swayed anyone still on the fence. The middle-aged white woman behind me, for example, was a lifelong Republican who said she was “fed up” with her party and looking for an alternative. She wouldn’t give her name -- after all, what would her family say?. Alas, I lost her in the crush of people, so I never found out.

But it turns out that Jeff, my friend who a few weeks ago stood solidly in the Clinton camp, today went to the polls and voted early for “The Black Jesus.” What changed his mind? The senator’s remarks in Ohio about how his ability to move and inspire people isn’t all he as to offer -- it’s merely a tool he uses to get people engaged. “When the American people are engaged,” Jeff recalls Obama saying, “we can get some stuff done.”

You know, I have to agree. What’s wrong with a little political participation, a little civic excitement and fun after what’s been a pretty grim seven years? If any candidate offering "hope" and "change" can inspire people to get off the couch, believe they can actually have an impact on the world and raise this country’s pathetic voting rates, well, then, bring it on. --Megan Feldman

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