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Obama: Cadences of King

by Jordan Green

Evidence of Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination abounded in Greensboro last week, with national campaign workers armed with laptop computers commandeering tables at cafés, college students enlisting and clean-cut volunteers popping in and out of the restaurants lining Elm Street.

“It’s history in the making,” said 28-year-old Aaliyah Arrington, after admiring a T-shirt worn by a passerby that bore the imprint “Obama For Yo Mama” as she sat outside Fincastle’s Restaurant on a sunny, warm day, the city buzzing with excitement around the candidate’s appearance at War Memorial Auditorium.

“I think he could deal with the issues that have been neglected in the past as far as the minorities and the economy go,” said Arrington, who described herself as a hustler, then laughingly amended it to sales associate. “I think he would relate more to the common person.”

The man who threatens to become the new standard bearer of the Democratic Party has put Sen. Hillary Clinton – at one time considered the presumptive nominee – on the defensive. Following the departure of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards from the race, Obama has co-opted his rhetoric of economic populism; once branded a post-racial candidate, the new Obama has adopted the cadences and phrases of Martin Luther King Jr. And even as he has become more outspoken on topics such as the war in Iraq and labor unions – bread and butter for the progressive wing of the party – Obama has maintained lines of communication with conservatives through his frank declarations about his religious faith.

Obama received his introduction at War Memorial Auditorium on March 26 from Debra Compton-Holt of the Beloved Community Center. She said, “Senator Obama’s strong support for working families speaks to my own experience,” and then went on to describe how after years of working as a labor organizer she found herself facing a healthcare challenge without insurance.

“His healthcare plan does more to reduce costs than any other candidate’s,” Compton-Holt said. “He is the only candidate who had the judgment to oppose the Iraq war from the very start.”

From the time Obama emerged to chants of, “Yes we can,” he held the predominately African-American audience in thrall.

“I’m not going to give a long speech today,” he said. To which his crowd urged, “Go ahead.” He reciprocated an expression of endearment, saying, “I love you back,” and a voice boomed from within the balcony: “Go, Barack.”

“I’m running because of what Dr. King called ‘the fierce urgency of now,'” Obama said, going on to note the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and the death of the 4,000th American soldier in that conflict. “We’re fighting two wars,” he said. “We’re fighting a war that we need to win in Afghanistan against al-Qaida. And we’re fighting a war that never should have been started in Iraq.” He later added, “The war in Iraq was unwise. That’s why I opposed it in 2002. That’s why I will bring it to a close in 2009. We will do so carefully, we will do so responsibly, and we will do so honorably.”

He made a guns-and-butter argument that the government is spending $10 billion a month on the war in Iraq, part of which could be spent to rebuild schools and provide healthcare in Greensboro.

“Our economy is in shambles,” Obama said.

“Yes” came a collective murmur from the audience.

“People ask me: ‘Are we in a recession?'” the candidate continued. “There are a whole lot of folks who have been living out a recession for a few years. They just haven’t heard you…. Now people are fearful of having their houses lost. People are fearful of having their jobs shifted overseas. In such circumstances, we cannot wait.”

Obama’s experience as a community organizer – he moved to the south side of Chicago in the mid-1980s to work with a church-based group, retraining laid-off steel workers and creating after-school programs – was evident in his interactions with the capacity crowd at War Memorial Auditorium. He drew out their innate intelligence, listened attentively to their questions, cajoled them with humor and kindness, and showed appreciation to them.

“I’m going to go boy-girl-boy-girl to make sure it’s fair,” he said, at the outset. Later, he decided to take a question from the balcony. As no microphone was available in the upper reaches of the auditorium, he suggested the man shout his question. When the questioner leaned over the railing, Obama cautioned, “Don’t jump over; I can hear you just fine.”

Asked what he would do about poverty, Obama invoked King and the civil rights movement, declaring that poverty and race were closely linked and that the challenges of poor blacks could not be tackled without also addressing those of whites in Appalachia and Latinos in the barrios of south Texas. He demurred that he doesn’t have “one single silver bullet,” and lined out a laundry list of solutions: extending healthcare, targeting programs for poorer schools, expanding the earned income tax credit for those who earn $75,000 or less and investing in infrastructure projects that pay a living wage.

Another person asked about the plight of people working for temporary employment agencies. Obama responded that the globalized economy has driven corporations to try to reduce costs by outsourcing employment.

“That’s part of the reason we’ve got to have trade agreements with labor standards and environmental standards,” he said, “so that when companies shift jobs overseas they know that they can’t bring these goods back unless they’ve paid their workers a fair wage and they don’t use child labor.”

“Organize,” a voice came from the audience.

“That’s what I was about to say,” Obama concurred. “One of the things we have to do is strengthen our unions because one of the things unions do is make sure that employees get paid a decent wage. And by the way, even if you’re not in a union, it benefits you because it puts pressure on employers that are not unionized to raise their wages just to compete.”

He noted that he supported the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow employees to form unions through a simple majority signing cards authorizing representation, as opposed to the current practice of requiring elections that are often financially costly and that give companies time to dissuade workers from voting for a union.

Obama’s detailed comments on his religious faith suggested that his campaign has transcended the traditional poles of labor and civil rights that anchor the political left. A student at Baptist college, who identified himself as a supporter, asked the candidate what role Jesus Christ plays in his life.

“I’m a Christian,” Obama said, prompting loud applause. Then he proceeded to lay out a three-part answer whose complexity might have lost audiences of candidates with lesser rhetorical abilities.

“What that means,” he began, “is that I believe Jesus Christ died for my sins, and through his grace and mercy I can achieve everlasting life.”

Then he moved on to the social gospel.

“I also believe in a gospel of not just words, but deeds,” he said. “My faith has always been one that has said, ‘How can you apply Jesus’ teaching day to day in a very concrete way?’ That means caring for the poor. That means being no respecter of social distinctions. That means treating the mighty and the weak the same. That means following the golden rule. That means being a good steward of the environment and trying to leave the earth a little better than I found it.”

He added that he believes people of other faiths can be just as moral as Christians, and paid homage to the Bill of Rights’ prohibition against laws establishing a national religion.

Obama also took a question from a young woman who said she was a refugee from Bosnia and who planned to vote for him. His response demonstrated an ability to parse a controversial issue that divides Democrats in a state with a rapidly growing immigrant population and continuing economic pain from deindustrialization.

“First of all, we’re glad you’re here,” the candidate said. “You are an example of what this country’s all about. We are a nation of immigrants.”

Then he said the nation’s immigration laws need to be respected. He called for stronger border security and enhanced surveillance of the border. He promised to “crack down on employers who are purposely hiring illegal immigrants because they don’t want to pay decent wages to US workers, because they don’t want to pay overtime or benefits.”

He continued that the notion that millions of undocumented immigrants could be rounded up and shipped back to their home countries was unrealistic. “They need to be requested to register,” he said. “They need to pay back taxes. They need to pay a fine. But there needs to be a pathway to citizenship. If we do that, I believe we can be a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants again.”

Afterwards, Dr. Sharon Van Horn, a Chapel Hill pediatrician who attended the town -hall meeting with her daughter, said she “liked the way he talked about religion. I’m a Christian. My children are Jewish. I like that Obama is an inclusive believer.”

Another supporter, Derrick Webster, a minister at Oak Ridge First Baptist Church, said he saluted Obama’s “whole notion for change.”

“His leadership can calm the world’s nervous system,” Webster said. “Just because of his spirit. He has a positive outlook, and a plan to go along with it.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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