Last week, in a New York Times interview, President Obama reminded the reporter of the truly messy nature of his primary campaign and how his administration faces a similar messiness today. But every time Barack Obama has seemed certain to lose and is battered into a corner - whether by his most powerful political challengers, sneaky racists, gangs of insurance shills, corporate-backed tea people or hairsprayed Congressional nay-sayers - I remember the day he called me out.
Back in July of 2007, I figured him to be a wimp. A bright, articulate, elegant wuss-bag who showed no stomach for bare knuckles politics. Trying to rise above the fray, he exuded both confidence and its snarky cousin, arrogance.
I had been invited to meet him at a party at a gentrified farmhouse in Peterborough, only a few miles from home. On that summer day, I woke up knowing I needed a question for candidate Obama, one that might prompt a soundbite and goad his opposition. The morning newspapers announced that Hillary Clinton had taken a 35-point lead in the New Hampshire primary polls, so I decided to ask him about that.
But instead of being a guest at an intimate gathering, I was irked to see that I had been invited to a rally. Hundreds of drivers parked in a hayfield and made their way to natural amphitheater behind the house, most of them carrying banners and signs. I picked my way through a phalanx of media trucks and recognizable television reporters hogging the shade. Such a huge gathering, I thought, and the guy refuses to take a swipe at his opponents. Well, not today, not if I can help it.
I knew that any question would have to rise above the crowd. So I positioned myself at a far corner of the rope line, from which I could shout.
Over the previous months I had seen enough of his cool demeanor, and now I wanted to see fighting spirit. On this familiar turf, I felt comfortable with the prospect of taunting the candidate. He emerged from the house, shook a hundred or so hands, and took the stage. Just as the fanfare subsided, I shouted "Where's the passion?!" He paused only momentarily before beginning his stump speech.
Some neighbors, a cop I knew, and strangers around me, patted me on the back. Others shot me dirty looks. At the end of the speech, just as he was about to launch his lead-in to the corny "Fired up and ready to go!," I found a space in his narrative and hollered "What are you going to do about Hillary?" This time, he turned slightly, then continued.
In rural New Hampshire, nobody screams at candidates. They show respect and regard. They listen quietly and grumble later. But I wanted to see Obama engage Clinton the way she had begun to engage him, mostly by slapping him away like a pesky mosquito.
After much waving and chanting, Obama hustled off stage and strode directly at me. Secret Service men jogged to catch up. As he neared, his chin lifted, his jaw flexed, and he scanned those around me.
"Who's hollerin' at me over here?" he demanded.
I raised my hand. He looked me in the eye and asked, "What's the problem?"
"Umm, Hillary. She's killing you in the polls. I want to know how you plan to close that gap." Everyone around me fell silent. They, too, wanted to know.
I swear his ears dropped like those of a startled doe after she dismisses the squeak of a nuthatch. He flashed that famous toothy smile, shook my hand, and said, "With your help." And he moved on. Just like that.
I was deflated, unimpressed, and unsatisfied. Later, looking for validation, I asked Adam Nagourney of the New York Times, Mark Halperin of TIME, and Richard Wolffe of MSNBC if I had been wrong; didn't he need to start fighting? Yes, they agreed. And he'd better not wait too long, they said.
As it turned out, we were all wrong. He went chin-to-chin with Clinton and McCain but he avoided slugging it out. Instead, he called millions to jump into the ring with him. Since then, we have seen him repeatedly backed into corners, and once he locates the point of conflict, he confronts his challengers and attacks their ideas and assumptions. Other politicians would have chosen to avoid a freak like me.
But Obama doesn't exactly fight. Ever since the celluloid cowpoke, Ronald Reagan, political leaders and pundits have adopted tough talk, fighting words. We've become accustomed to hearing about lines in the sand and bringing knives to gunfights. Well, Obama shows up for the fight but doesn't bring knives or guns; he brings friends and relatives, supporters and pals, maneuvers and proposals. Disarmed, his opponents go away mad.
The President's cool, unnerving as it was to me, allows him get things done without fighting. That's frustrating for bullies but exactly what good mothers try to teach their children.
Whatever the outcome, I think the President is looking forward to Election Day. For the past two years, he has focused on addressing monumental crises and governing, on fulfilling his promises against nearly impossible odds. Now, with his opponents throwing wild haymakers and persistent jabs, he's likely to reach over the ropes with bold ideas and start hauling Americans into the ring with him. He may take a flurry of punches and lose a few rounds, but only a fool would count him out.
Causes Paul Hertneky Supports
Monadock Area Transitional Shelter
Monadnock Humane Society
The Harris Center for Outdoor Education