Barack Obama has been campaigning since early this morning, and as he addresses his last audience of the day, he professes some strong emotions about the distance many Americans feel from their government. "It makes me angry when folks feel they have no one working for them," he declares to some 250 people who have gathered on a Tuesday evening at the Cedar County Fairgrounds.
As he invariably does when outlining his discontent with the status quo, the Illinois senator sounds firm. He sounds sincere. What he doesn’t sound is angry.
That is either the great strength or the great weakness of his campaign. American politics is chronically awash in free-floating bile, some of it genuine and some of it manufactured. So voters may prefer a candidate who can summon up visible outrage at the slightest provocation, of which this race offers many alternatives.
If the venting of spleen is what Iowans want, an Obama event is not the place to find it. His gift — one of them, anyway — is to be able to disparage his foes in unequivocal terms without sounding strident or hostile.
Asked earlier in the day about the performance of the federal government after Hurricane Katrina, he noted that the hapless Michael Brown had been an official of the International Arabian Horse Association. "I know this is novel," he said in a droll tone, "but my thinking is that you oughta be an expert in emergency management to be head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency."
He’s equally deft at reminding voters of his differences with Clinton. Obama never mentions the Iraq war without saying not only that it "should never have been waged," but also that it "should never have been authorized" — something Hillary Clinton and John Edwards supported. He invokes Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in saying "longevity is no guarantee of good judgment," but the line applies equally well to the former first lady.
Asked by a woman in Tipton why she should vote for him over Clinton, he begins by saying, "She’s a capable person, she’s tough, she’s smart," but ends by saying, more in sorrow than in anger, "There is a known commodity, been around a long time, Bill’s there, we kind of know what we’re going to get. But that’s exactly the problem: we know what we’re going to get. We’re not going to get significant change."
His critics say that the campaign trail is no place for subtlety, and that he often comes across as overly cool and cerebral. Given that he trails Clinton by 25 points in a recent national poll, they may be right. But he is betting that in time, his aura of imperturbable calm and relaxed command will appeal to voters weary of the nonstop furies that raged under President Clinton as well as President Bush.
On actual issues, the differences among the main Democratic candidates are modest. They all want to leave Iraq expeditiously but carefully, they all have programs to expand health insurance coverage, they all promise to end Bush’s abuse of civil liberties, and they all denounce tax cuts for the rich. Many of their speech lines are interchangeable.
Where they differ most is in temperament. Clinton has a well-earned reputation as arrogant, inflexible and opportunistic, and she brags about her zest for combat: "When you’re attacked, you have to deck your opponents." Edwards, meanwhile, presents himself as a fierce populist crusading against powerful interests. "I’ve been fighting these people all my entire life," he tells audiences. "I fought them in the courtroom, and I’ve beat them and beat them."
Obama, by contrast, suggests that the last thing Washington needs is an infusion of pugnacity. He would rather talk about his ability to bridge partisan divides to find practical solutions. He can point to a major bill he sponsored, grudgingly signed last summer by the president, which banned gifts to members of Congress from lobbyists and mandated full reporting of campaign contributions by lobbyists who raise "bundles" of checks from many people.
For those who see politics and government as an endless barroom brawl, bipartisan efforts to solve real problems may sound like naive folly. But when Obama concludes on an upbeat note, saying that America has been "a bright and shining light, and we can be that again," the crowd gives him a standing ovation. Apparently, some people are warming to the idea of lowering our political thermostat.