05/29/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Clouded Victory Rally

Barack Returns to Iowa, and Both Bear the Wounds of the Long Campaign

Last night was glorious in Des Moines--balmy, clear, a moon like a gold doubloon on the low horizon. It was the perfect backdrop for Barack Obama's return to the state that set him on the path to the Democratic nomination. It should have been an occasion of joy and celebration with the Iowans who so early on believed in him, many working their hearts out for him. Instead it was, at least to my eye, a troubling event that inadvertently dramatized the disjunction with reality that characterizes Obama's persona and speech now, as well as the divisions among Americans that the long campaign is laying bare and deepening.

From the beginning of his race for the presidency, Senator Obama has inveighed against divisiveness in society and politics. This has been a grand rhetorical trope, and a successful one, bringing forward many of Obama's first adherents. Divisiveness has been out there somewhere, separating some people somewhere. But now it's more than rhetoric; it's here, bearing down on the Obama Campaign, threatening to ground it, no matter how high Obama tries to fly. There is no better example of this than the setting for his remarks about Senator Clinton last night in Des Moines. Before the rally began, some reporters and photographers gathered around a TV rigged up behind the cut riser in the press area to watch Hillary Clinton's Kentucky victory speech on MSNBC. Mostly, these were guys watching--and commenting derisively. "She's still talking?" "Why won't she shut up!" "All her supporters in Kentucky are racists."

The press compound was as full as it ever is--maybe a hundred people, from all over the world--and I have no idea who these guys were. The traveling press had not yet arrived. National media almost never reveal anything personal, particularly at such a public event (spectators just on the other side of the barrier). But it's not uncommon for local press, particularly in small towns, to openly wear their preferences--to clap for "their" candidates, for example. Nevertheless, I've never seen anything like it in the months I've been following the campaigns. To my mind, it's part of the spreading, corrosive factionalism. And the backstage commentary was completely at odds with what Barack Obama was about to say about Hillary Clinton--at least on the surface.

"We have had our disagreements during this campaign, but we all admire her courage, her commitment and her perseverance. No matter how this primary ends, Senator Clinton has shattered myths and broken barriers and changed the America in which my daughters and yours will come of age." Aside from the disingenuousness--surely Senator Obama knows that many in his audiences do not admire Hillary Clinton--condescension clouds the lofty tone. And what exactly are the "shattered myths" and "broken barriers" to which Obama's very young male speechwriters are referring?

In effect, Senator Obama has been trying to step past Hillary Clinton with a tip of his hat, a nod and a few nice words. But the reality is that they are still at war, for she has refused to surrender. Not only has she not given up the fight, she is now damaging him. Obama's response lately has been passive-aggression. This was one of the most troubling aspects of his appearance in Des Moines, for it was not in all honesty a celebratory reunion with Iowans but a maneuver to counter Clinton's anticipated big win in Kentucky by returning to the battleground state that gave him his first big win. Passive-aggressive strategy dictated Iowa redux. If Obama had waited until he actually clinched the nomination, he could have returned to Iowa and given its citizens the rally they deserve. Instead the rally lacked the same sense of place as did Clinton's in Nashville on the night of Obama's win in South Carolina.

There is a widening gulf between Clinton's supporters and his, and so far Obama doesn't know how to approach it. He has yet to figure out how to reach beyond his base. Before the outdoor rally, I walked along the queue waiting for the gates to open and asked people whom they had caucused for in January. It was great fun because Iowans are so open and friendly, and within an hour or so I had several hundred marks in my notebook. Some had come with self-deprecating confessions about switching sides. One man--laughter all around--admitted that he was second at his caucus to desert Edwards and was now an Obama delegate. A woman announced, to much applause, that she was the last hold-out at hers for Richardson. After two hours and give-or-take five hundred tallies, I found, not surprisingly, that most rally-goers had been Obama supporters from day one. Indeed a reminder of the strength and brilliance of his Iowa campaign was the astonishing number of precinct captains, special invitations in hand, waiting in their own line for VIP seating. But there were also Iowans who had caucused for Edwards, Kucinich, Richardson, Biden and Dodd. There were Iowans for all the Democratic candidates. Except one. And there were no Republicans.

Later that night in post-election coverage on MSNBC (competing with an Italian journalist shouting copy into a cell phone in our hotel lobby--something about Barack Obama and la campagna), Paul Begala gave as evidence that the Democrats are coming together the fact that both Senators Clinton and Obama have run "no negative ads in three weeks." But attacks are now beside the point. The trenches have been dug. Adherents are hunkered down. And supporters are doing all the negative work themselves. Leaving the Des Moines rally, for example, an older Iowa lady, upon seeing a yard sign for down-ballot candidate Representative Leonard Boswell, said, "I could never vote for him. I'll never forgive him for endorsing Hillary." I asked the woman when Boswell had come out for Clinton. It was before the caucuses, she thought, and she didn't see that the timing made her condemnation any less reasonable.

The heart of the Des Moines rally was, of course, Obama's speech. First reading the copy prepared for the press, then listening to Obama himself, I was struck by how much darker his words were than the ones he delivered the night of his Iowa victory. Last night was supposed to be a victory speech of sorts as well, for winning not only Oregon but also the lead in pledged delegates. Nevertheless, negative words and phrases--promises broken, disappointed, skeptics, cynics, a lot of hype, failed us, point-scoring, petty bickering, cynical, doubtful, fearful, doubt, disappointment--threaded the remarks. Obama rushed through them, moreover, stepping on his audience's applause and cheer moments three times. As usual lately, he talked about changing the tax code, changing health care, changing our energy policy, changing the war. What he should have been talking about, down-to-earth, is changing the dynamics of his support. He should have asked, "Is anybody here for Hillary Clinton?" He should have asked his Iowa supporters to reach out to the local Hilaryites and to begin to mend fences. He should have asked for their help in reaching out more generally.

It was a subdued crowd that slowly walked away from the corner of Locust and 6th in Des Moines. These were people who love and trust Barack Obama and who would follow him far and farther. But last evening there had never been a moment-- and really the crowd deserved many-- when Obama came down from the loftiness of his thoughts to rest in the crowd's assured faith, to relax with some of these earliest supporters, to reminisce a tiny bit, to engage in as much call-and-response as white folk are capable. This is what Barack Obama's return to Iowa should have been. But it was not the right time. And divisiveness has exacted its price, even from the Obama Campaign.