Obama and the ‘Goose Bump’ Factor

The future of the Democratic Party — Ohio’s near future and the nation’s more distant future — was on display June 3 at the Westin Hotel downtown, where about 150 people attended a fundraising lunch for U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown, running for the Senate seat now held by Republican Mike DeWine. Many came to find out about northern Ohio native Brown, who represents the Cleveland area, but the real buzz surrounded Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

Like most people in the room, I knew Obama from his scintillating keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where the self-described “skinny kid with a funny name” vaulted to national prominence. Now touted as the party’s Great Black Hope — pinned with expectations that include his eventual election as the country’s first African-American president — Obama clearly was a huge “get” for this Cincinnati appearance as well as the Democrats’ annual state dinner later that night in Columbus. He told the Westin lunch crowd he receives hundreds of speaking invitations daily but he wanted to come to Ohio “early and late in this campaign” because of the state’s obvious importance in the national political scheme.

Jennie Rosenthal Berliant — who, with husband Allan, organized the event — set the mood by observing in introductory remarks the difference between Democrats and Republicans: “There’s a political saying that in elections Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line. We need to fall in line behind Sherrod Brown and get him elected, but I’m hoping today to fall in love, too.”

The name Paul Hackett wasn’t mentioned once by any speaker, but it was pretty clear that a lot of people in the room weren’t familiar with Brown other than as the guy who pushed Hackett out of the Senate primary. Some of the party veterans remembered that Brown served two terms as Ohio Secretary of State in the 1980s, but everyone else simply seemed excited at the prospect of beating a vulnerable DeWine and helping Democrats take back the Senate.

Brown did his best to woo, name checking a number of local office-holders in the room as well as those also running this fall, such as Congressional candidates John Cranley (District 1) and Victoria Wulsin (District 2) and State Sen. Eric Kearney, who introduced Brown.

Brown spoke without notes, starting with a funny anecdote about buying a red, white and blue ceramic donkey at an Adams County Democratic fundraiser the night before. And he made sure to introduce his wife, Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at The Cleveland Plain Dealer who’s on a leave of absence during the campaign. (Obama and Kearney also praised Schultz and her Pulitzer during their remarks.)

He talked about the lapel pin of a canary he wears and how coal miners took canaries into the mines with them 100 years ago to warn of oxygen deprivation and how average life expectancy in the U.S. back then was 46 years. Over the past 100 years, he went on to say, life expectancy and quality have improved for Americans due to a host of (Democrat-backed) initiatives such as better working conditions, eradication of child labor, cleaner air and water, improved education, etc.

As all politicians do — even those with Pulitzer Prize-winning wives — Brown also took some shots at the media, which he says is defending “poor Mike DeWine” because he has to run for re-election in a year when President Bush’s approval ratings are in the toilet.

“But DeWine has been a rubber stamp for Bush on Iraq, on Medicare, on support for the big oil companies, on issue after issue,” Brown said, refuting the claim that DeWine is being unfairly tarred by the president’s plummeting popularity. “And DeWine’s reward for that support was a huge fundraiser in Indian Hill and strategy sessions with Karl Rove.”

Obama took the stage after Brown and offered fairly low-key remarks about rallying the troops for a strong showing in the fall. (I heard a few people afterwards complain they thought Obama was a little too low key.)

“I love politics deeply, as many of you do,” he said, “but even we have to acknowledge that people feel cynical about politics and public life these days. Every two or four years they hold their nose and vote for the lesser of two evils or out of habit, but they don’t believe that government will really make a difference in their lives.”

Obama said his overriding goal in the Senate is to convince Americans that we’re all connected and have a mutual obligation to each other. Each of us, he said, has to commit to lifting the country up and has to understand that we have a stake in each other’s success.

He ended with a challenge to the Democrats to “have a serious adult conversation with the American people that talks about a future that’s optimistic and hopeful” — not to be negative about what’s wrong with the country, a message he said Americans naturally resist, but to point out how Democrats offer a better future than the Republicans.

Obama invoked a quotation of Martin Luther King Jr. about the arc of history always bending toward justice, using it to buoy the spirits of Democrats used to Ohio giving Bush two national elections, giving Republicans every statewide office and supporting conservative causes like the gay marriage ban. If everyone in the room can just pull together and help bend the arc of history a little bit more, he said, justice (and the Democratic cause) will ultimately prevail.

It was the closest Obama came to providing a goose-bump moment during his remarks, but the audience clearly was appreciative of being in the same room with him. Many people sought him out for photos and handshakes before and after lunch, and he took time for everyone.

An older African-American woman at my table told me her grown children were thrilled for her to see Obama. Then she said, “I know this sounds strange, but I just want to touch him.”

— John Fox

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