Obama candidacy fuels dreams, merchandising

by Jordan Green

Barack Obama took root as a commercial phenomenon at Greensboro’s Four Seasons Town Centre on Feb. 13, the day after he swept the Democratic primaries in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

A hook full of T-shirts bearing the likeness of the presidential candidate and inscribed with the words “Change Is Gonna Come” holds an honored place behind the cash register at African American Art – first among equals with “Danger: Educated Black Woman,” the iconic photograph of the 1968 Olympians with fists raised in the black-power salute and the famous image of Martin Luther King Jr. shaking hands with Malcolm X.

Jackie White, a 30-year-old graduate student at High Point University, worked her connections with her alma mater, Guilford College to market the Obama shirts, bumper stickers and buttons her family’s store began carrying. She mentioned the merchandise to Lindsey Lughes, a current student and a cofounder of Triad for Obama, who in turn sent out an e-mail blast. Within two hours, White said, she began receiving phone calls and e-mails from people asking for the merchandise.

“Everybody is on fire for Barack Obama,” White said. “I had two-hundred buttons. I have one left. I’m waiting on another shipment to come on Monday.”

The Triad has mirrored the nation as a whole in an explosion of interest and excitement in Obama’s campaign, and a corresponding listlessness towards one-time presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton.

“We started the organization last summer, and past Super Tuesday and the Potomac primaries, we’ve gone from thirty active members to seven hundred,” Lughes said of Triad for Obama. “That’s been what – two or three weeks?”

Members of Triad for Obama have been staffing phone banks set up to reach voters in Texas and Ohio in advance of those states’ March 4 primaries. And in early April, Lughes said, they’ll launch a get-out-the-vote operation on local campuses as North Carolina’s May 6 primary approaches.

Lughes, a former public interest lobbyist who returned to college to pursue policy studies, has worked on gubernatorial campaigns for Democrats in Virginia and Ohio, and she slogged through Democratic nominee John Kerry’s failed bid for president in 2004. She said there was no comparison between the two presidential candidates in terms of the passion inspired in their respective supporters.

The political season’s mantra of “change,” deftly embodied by Obama, has resonated particularly with White.

“I agree with him as for bringing the troops home – over some time though,” the retailer said. “I agree with him in what he has to say about healthcare. With middle- and lower-class Americans – that hope that he’s talking about – we are looking for that change. I don’t care what color your skin is. There are middle- and lower-class people who are hurting. We’ve got people working three and four jobs who can’t afford to get a manicure on Saturday. That’s not right.”

White contributed $50 through the Obama campaign’s website, motivated by the sense that she wouldn’t want to have to tell her grandchildren that a black man ran for president and she didn’t support him. Her mother and stepfather have also made contributions.

The Obama campaign has outpaced Clinton’s fundraising operation 2 to 1 in the Triad, according to Federal Election Commission data collected through the end of 2007, though receipts from North Carolina are dwarfed by campaign contributions from New York, Florida, Texas, Florida and even neighboring Virginia.

Both Democratic candidates have pulled in a range of contributions from $13 to the maximum $4,600 from Triad donors, but contributions to the Obama campaign averaged $265, compared to $410 for the Clinton campaign.

A series of informal meetings of Obama supporters recently culminated in a rally for the candidate at the Guilford County Democratic Party headquarters in Greensboro on Feb. 28, where organizers estimated attendance at about 230 people. Paul Mengert, chair of the Guilford County Democratic Party, said he was unaware of any North Carolina campaign activities on behalf of Clinton over the past couple months “outside of some high-dollar fundraising activities.”

Bess Lewis, secretary for the county party, said a meeting of Clinton supporters took place last October. “From my understanding it was a small group,” she said. “There was a meeting at Earth Fare. I have not heard anything since.”

Mengert said he believes the excitement behind Obama’s candidacy is in some measure a facet of critical mass.

“I think a lot of it probably has to do with momentum, that America likes to get with the swinging pendulum,” he said.

Malcolm Kenton, a Guilford College student and president of the Guilford County Young Democrats, threw his support behind Obama after former North Carolina senator John Edwards dropped out of the race.

“His positions were closer to mine,” Kenton explained. “He was more progressive. He would have moved closer to universal single-payer healthcare.”

It was Obama’s style and personal background rather than matters of policy that ultimately tipped Kenton in his favor.

“I think him and Hillary’s positions are pretty similar,” Kenton said. “The thing about Obama is that he’s been in the trenches. He’s been a community organizer on the south side of Chicago…. He does make people feel like they have the power to influence decisions themselves, that they’re not just relying on politicians.”

For William Ward, the 39-year-old owner of Flashlight Universal Barbershop and White’s next-door neighbor at Four Seasons Town Centre, Obama is both a source of pride for black people and the standard bearer for a populist change wave. Incidentally, he also admires Republican candidate John McCain’s patriotism, and indicated he views Clinton favorably.

“People believe in him,” Ward said of Obama. “They believe in what the media and Obama says – that this is a movement. A movement is hard to beat. Personally, I feel that if he don’t fulfill those dreams, it’s enough for me because it inspires me. Any goals you have, you can achieve it. Americans want to see change. They could do something great. They can make it. They can be CEOs.”

The fact that Obama fever has breached the color line where previous black presidential candidates such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton foundered on the shoals of identity politics reflects the increasingly difficult economic straits most Americans find themselves in, the barber suggested.

“He transcended when the time was right,” Ward said. “The American people are really sick of their government. They’re hungry for something. They’re unemployed. They don’t have health insurance. Their patience is really thin.”

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