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Pennsylvania Campaign Journal: Obama Hams It Up, Flirts, And Gets A Bit Cocky

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Barack Obama is engaging with "real folk" in one of the staged pit stops along his "Road to Change" six-day bus tour across Pennsylvania. He has just walked into Claudio's, a deli in the old Italian Market in Philadelphia. A group of guys are standing in the narrow street, cordoned off now by the Secret Service, and pretending not to crane their necks to see. "Oh man, he's gone for cheese," the guy who owns the jumble shop across the way says.

"Look at 'em--I got ten," his friend says, pointing to the Secret Service agents. I tell him that with the agents in the alleys there are at least twenty. Then I ask if Claudio's is famous.

"I never been in there," the shop owner says. "Provolone. They say provolone."

Obama exits, shakes a few hands -- there aren't that many eager spectators, so it's looking like Philly isn't as easy a lay as Altoona --and moves on down the sidewalk. The light catches the fabric of his suit. You know he is vain, because only fit thin guys can get away with shiny fabric. Now he enters Di Bruno Bros "The House of Cheese," supposedly "a Philadelphia tradition since 1939."

"Cheese," my new companion says glumly. He's told me he plans to vote for Obama, but the candidate has let him down.

Turning to two younger men, also friends, I ask if they are actors and what they think about the election. They, too, are Obama guys--taken aback I have them pegged--but only actors can carry off threadbare jackets with such panache. This time when Obama emerges a guy in a blue fleece presses in and pushily asks Obama to pose for a picture with him.

"You are wearing me out brother," Obama turns and says in a tone with just the perfect street inflection.

The actors and the shop owners laugh and slap. "Did you hear that? You're wearing me out brother!" Obama's now one of them, and the story gets passed up the shops. This incident has been all over the media, who have variously called Obama "snippy" (FOX) and "testy" (CBS). But it doesn't go down like that on the street, where the guys get a glimpse of Obama's old self walking Chicago's South Side and love it.

The Secret Service agents behind me wind up their reminiscences about pests we have known on presidential detail--some long involved story about stalking a First Lady. Their compadres deal with the picture hound and quickly the pool press, who swoop down on these set pieces like a pack of chimney sweeps with their ungainly equipment, jump back in the press bus. I'm already looking forward to the press pool report. For every stop on the bus tour, one print reporter is assigned the task of writing something up for everybody else, since only a few video and pencil people can accompany Obama on his little outings. These pool reports can be gems of wit and detail with the knowing archness of an A+ paper from teacher's pet--nothing like the pedestrian prose for which reporters are paid.

After the Obama caravan departs, I talk with Shlomi, who owns a clothing store a block up from the cheese shop. "He's not downtown with all the lights," he says approvingly. "Here are people, living the life, day by day--it's good, you know. It really looks real, not for the photos." Not wanting me to think he's too sincere, Shlomi adds, "It's nice he came--that's cute."

I don't disabuse him--not that I have time since, not being part of the traveling press, I have to make my own way to Wallingford, where Obama is soon to hold his next town hall meeting. But none of the bus stops are real--how can they be? Too much advance work and security is required. Campaign staffers rounded up a group of war veterans to meet Obama at a sports bar in Burnham, for example. And some bits of the itinerary are questionable choices. Why would a man without a sweet tooth be stopping at Wilbur's Chocolate? Obama's refusal of candy and cake is likely the talk of Lancaster County by now. When I mentioned this to the editor of Harrisburg's Morning Call, he laughed and said, "no one there is going to vote for him anyway."

But Obama's bus tour has been a success in that it has been a sidewinder kind of a way for him to ease himself into a state where Clinton's support is so strong and loud that it can approach opera-bouffe. So far Obama has shown several sides of himself to Quaker Staters. Wednesday morning it was the guy with street cred. Earlier that morning, he had emerged as the consummate pol and nailed it for the half-skeptical crowd of Penn AFL-CIO waiting for him in a ballroom at the downtown Sheraton. Obama pumped up the volume for the labor people, asserting
"Labor unions are on the rise--don't let anybody tell you different--and I want to be part of that rise." The speech was full of sports metaphor in what is fast becoming the sporticism primary. First there was Joe Paterno, cruising sports bars with Bob Casey and bowling a frame or two out in the western part of the state. Lest Obama score a few with Steelers voters, Clinton made her own two-pointer when her "bowl-off" challenge to settle the Democratic nomination April-fooled the traveling press for a choice micro-second. Then Clinton told the AFL-CIO the day before Obama made his case that she is the new Rocky. In riposte, Obama reminded labor that Rocky is only a movie before going on to declare that "It's time to play offense for working families."

The hyper-tone of the labor speech was a jolt after all the laid-back town hall meetings of the previous week. There Obama has been Mr. Congeniality, replete with jokes and "time for one more question," as well as kiss-kiss-kisses for sundry lucky girls and ladies. A dazed Irish lassie of the SEIU regaled the Ladies Room at the Sheraton with the story of her kiss. But why wouldn't Barack Obama be in good humor? He had his new best roadie pal Bob Casey to shoot hoops with in the morning (at least until Casey had to go back to work), he is rising in the PA polls and, like a little wrapped chocolate laid out on his pillow every night, he gets a new super delegate by the evening of every day. The laid-back style was just right for the large white middle of Pennsylvania. Obama never let himself appear too black, although his roots rose up in him before his audience, about half of whom were African-American and urging him on at the Harrisburg Forum Sunday night. Pennsylvania has yet to see the College Professor, although that persona may be appearing soon in the various Roundtables which Pennsylvanians will have to endure.

In all the hoopla over sports and stops at a Slinky factory and an Amerigreen ethanol gas station, Obama's approach to America's problems, as it reveals itself day-to-day on the stump, has largely been lost. Ironically though, he may have found a way, rhetorically, to pull out of Iraq. As part of the camp who can envision the ensuing consequences of our departure all too well, I have been skeptical. But now at almost every town hall meeting and rally, Obama says, "We spend 18 billion a month in Iraq. What else can we spend it on?" And the citizens of each city in which Obama stops can always find good use for 18 billion. If Obama is elected President, and if he begins to bring brigades out of Iraq, and if, as is most likely, nasty consequences ensue, he will tell the American people to focus on roads and bridges and the new federally-funded math and science programs in the schools.

Just as prevention is slowly becoming a centerpiece of Obama's health care plan, so stronger math/science is surpassing the arts as the jewel in Obama's education program. The excelling students of India and China have become an idee fixe for Obama of late. "They work harder than our kids do," he told Johnstown. The little buggers were on his mind again in Wilkes-Barre. "If kids in India and China are working harder than our children are working, we will fall behind. Americans have never been afraid of hard work. . . ." In Harrisburg: "But in India and China kids with a huge desire to learn but bad schools and buildings and no computers are outscoring us in math." There isn't going to be a lot of TV watching in an Obama administration.

Obama's synchronic thinking about issues, which I've written about before, has also been on display. He gets many questions about jobs and job loss; his answer always is education and better education. In Wilkes-Barre, ground zero of a depressed economy, Obama said, "There are those who want to draw a moat around America--that's not going to work. We have to compete internationally. We have to invest in education." Responding to a question about violence in the schools, he linked violence and specifically gun violence to mental health and the place of mental health coverage in his health care plan. He linked both to veterans' issues and the need for every vet to get the psychiatric help he or she needs.

Happy and serene on the Pennsylvania stump, Obama has also been a bit cocky. I regret to report that Tuesday 4 PM in Scranton I heard him refer to himself in the third person. "That's what Obama will do." Substantively, he's grown a bit sloppy, oversimplifying and coarsening his message. In Walllingford Wednesday afternoon, Obama called Syria, a country with which we have a complex relationship, "our enemy" (For one thing, Syria has taken in a million of the Iraqi refugees we should have been helping.) Although I've heard him talk about No Child Left Behind in a serious and nuanced way--never, for example, like Clinton saying "scrap it"--in Wallingford Obama asserted that N.C.L.B. is the reason there's "no recess, no art, no music" in the schools. This didn't sound right to me, mostly because my sister is something of an expert on the subject and she talks frequently about N.C.L.B. I emailed her right away and got back her reply before Obama even finished his remarks. She reminded me that a school's curriculum is set by state departments of education and local school boards. The problem for art programs is that some schools have gone to 90-minute "literacy blocks" in order to make sure that students master reading and writing, and also "double dipping" in middle school, where students at-risk in language arts and/or math get a second 45-minute session in those subjects a day. Obama, however, has greatly simplified his N.C.L.B. remarks since Texas.

Obama the easy-going candidate likely will disappear long before the day of the Pennsylvania primary. At this point, Clinton and Obama are only circling one another in the ring and jabbing a tentative punch or two. Eventually, it's going to be more than "tiddlywinks and a beanbag"--to quote Obama himself from his interview with Chris Matthews last night on the Hardball College Tour. Except on the subject of NAFTA, Obama is always complimentary of Clinton--a wise move in a state she still dominates. But her once-formidable lead is fading, and Hillary Clinton absolutely must win Pennsylvania by double digits to stay in the race with respect from the referees and spectators. She's going to give it everything she's got--a lot more than tiddlywinks and beanbag throws--after all, the Rodhams are from Scranton. But an Obama spring is in the air. You could feel it on the bus tour, in the way a few Altoonans fell for Obama so fast; in the way an African-American pastor in Harrisburg, who assured me of his Republican verities, was jumping up for Obama before the end of the evening; in the dodged pursuit of the veteran vote by a little band of out-of-state vets who are working hard for Obama in PA; in the move of gun owners (and PA has more than any other state) towards Obama because he has supported legislation to prohibit the use of federal funds to confiscate weapons during natural disasters; and simply in the way, just like in Iowa, people who come out to hear him take questions decide he has their votes.

The editor of The Morning Call told me that the Lehigh Valley (the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton metropolitan area) will be the place Obama could score an unexpected win. At this point, he puts the race there at 50-50. I don't know anything about the Lehigh Valley, having been briefly in Allentown only for the Obama rally, but I will be back next week to find out more.