How good was Barack Obama's speech at the Iowa Democratic Party Jefferson Jackson dinner Saturday night? Long after the event ended, as a scrum of giddy Obama staffers were all-but-forcibly exited from the bar of the Fort Des Moines Hotel, they struck up a spontaneous chorus of the campaign's newly debuted catchphrase: "Fired up!" Beat. "Ready to go!" Beat "Fired up!" Beat. "Ready to go!" This slightly manic release of tension and elation wasn't surprising. What was surprising was the person leading it: John Edwards campaign manager Joe Trippi, who punctuated each explosive slogan with a pumped fist.
Not that Trippi is a convert. (One Edwards staffer said that Trippi was simply showing support for the "change gang.") And, it's true, the Edwards campaign is alive and well in Iowa. Privately, rival campaigns concede that Edwards would probably win if the caucuses were held, say, tonight. Says one organizer, "His supporters are largely previous caucus-goers; you don't have to convince them very hard to go again. Everyone else is going to need all the convincing we can manage in the next month and a half." The excitement generated by Obama's fiery but disciplined speech is a reminder of what it means to convince someone.
The speech mixed inspiration and contempt, passion and outrage, autobiography and attack. It balanced language that both harkened back to the rich, poetic phrases of Martin Luther King (he cited King's reminder about "the fierce urgency of now") and the less subtle patois of contemporary politics — his boast that "when I'm your nominee, my opponent won't be able to say that I supported this war in Iraq; or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran," was a deft jab to the very center of Hillary Clinton's weaknesses in the Democratic primary. Unless you think he got to the center of her weaknesses here: "Not answering questions because we're afraid our answers just won't be popular just won't do it." Or maybe here: "Telling Americans what they think they want to hear instead of telling the American people what they need to hear just won't do it." And yet he ended on a soaring note: "In this election — at this moment — let us reach for what we know is possible. A nation healed. A world repaired. An America that believes again."
After the most recent Democratic debate late last month, Obama was gently scolded by the pundit class for having denied them the fireworks promised between the Illinois senator and Hillary Clinton. Chris Cillizza chided, "He is not someone who enjoys direct confrontation and is still learning the political necessity of the tactic," while Real Clear Politics accused Obama of "backing off." Perhaps, some theorized, he was somehow suffering from his ability to "transcend politics." He was a rock star without an anthem, all charisma but no courage.
Staffers say that the senator struggled with the perception that he was coasting. "It's a much more visceral message now," says senior adviser David Axelrod. "It's much more from his gut ... the stakes are high, and he wanted to make sure his full motivations were clear." And over the past few weeks, his attitude evolved from trying to figure out what might be going wrong to realizing there was, Axelrod says, "a reason to do this now." As he told CBS news in the days before the dinner, "I think there was a period of time when things were static and people liked what they were hearing from me, but they didn't have a sense that there were significant differences between me and Sen. Clinton."
Indeed, Wednesday, he reminded the listeners of Radio Iowa that "'politics of hope' he's been talking about don't mean that things come easy — or that there won't be a fight." Thursday, he said of Clinton's ethanol position, "If she's willing to shift this quickly on this issue, we don't know whether she will shift back when it gets hard," then dinged her on Iran: "Just remember who got it right and who got it wrong in the most important decision!"
As Clinton trudged through a week of momentum-sapping process stories — her supposed failure to leave a tip, the presence of a planted question in a town hall — Obama appeared to gain energy. His speech at the dinner was the performance of a politician, not a rock star. But he has found his voice.