Sorry for the delayed reaction but I wanted to share some thoughts about my encounter with THE NEXT VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, Barack Obama. Okay look, he absolutely has a chance of winning the Democratic nomination. I'm a Friend of B.O.
Last week I was invited to a fundraiser for Barack at the Harvard Club in midtown. I broked out the houndstooth and ascot and harrumphed my way past the doorman (there was no metal detector or special security; maybe they do that sort of thing at the CORNELL Club, but not here). The event was sponsored by certain partners at Lehman Brothers and the Nixon Peabody law firm. Sponsors were expected to donate $2,300. actually, I believe attendees were as well. My donation fell just short.
I looked forward to hearing Obama in person, but I also wanted the experience of seeing a presidential candidate in action on the campaign trail, in an intimate setting. Hot hors d'ouvres would be a bonus but not the sine qua non for my being there. Which is a good thing, because $2,300 got you one open bar for over 100 people and some cut up veggies. Conversely, every night is Taco Night on the Mitt Romney campaign trail. That's the GOP for you though.
Obama entered the room through a rear entrance with almost zero fanfare. He just sort of appeared and people started to mill about hm. He wore his standard blue blazer, slacks and cream colored dress shirt, and no tie in a room full of pinstripes and Windsor knots. I couldn't stop looking at his shirt. Obama's shirts are custom-tailored so that the buttons are not equidistant. I think they want to go with the open collar but not expose too much neck area, without making him look like Nehru or Ed Grimley. The button pattern looks like this: [not sure the autoformatting is going to do this justice]
Obama has very purple, A-Rod lips in person. His hands were surprisingly soft when I met him. I don't like to make a big scene when I meet famous people, but I did prepare what I was going to say so I didn't just stand there like a halfwit. "Senator, it is an honor to meet you and I wish you luck in the upcoming year." He fixed his gaze on me and asked....
"what's your name?"
"Thank you Joshua"
He used the same line on everyone: "What's your name?", no matter how elaborate their greeting. Just whatsyourname and move on. Frankly, he looked exhausted.
Once everyone in the crowd had gotten their piece of flesh, it was time for him to speak. I stood no more than 20 feet from the lectern. He gave a fairly canned but natural-sounding introduction about who he is and why he's running. His comments were savvy: "most of you are probably here because you want to know 'who is this Obama guy running for President?'" and "I think that at this point in American history, maybe time inside the Beltway is the liability, not lack thereof." [I'm paraphrasing the latter comment]
Obama offered his top priorities if he's elected: 1. get out of Iraq 2. universal health care and improved education 3. Casual Friday for all branches of goverment, including Supreme Court. Maybe the topics were predictable, but Obama presented them mostly with erudition and what sounded like honesty.
He still seemed tired and more than once paused in mid-sentence to collect his thoughts, but he was effective and showed command of his facts. He talked about his early career in public service, helping the disadvantaged as a civil rights attorney in Illinois. He talked about the inequality of children without health care, single moms who can't afford a doctor visit. All the while his voice carried him. Mellifluous. Smooth. Commanding. What a great voice. Obama isn't a crowd-pleasing charmer like Clinton or, in his own, way Dubya. But he is charismatic by dint of his presence and command of his material. He tells jokes but he comes off a very serious person.
There was a Q&A session. International relations again - he talked about how the next President has the opportunity to go to foreign leaders and say "it's a new day, let's talk about working together and sharing accountability." Most interesting was his response to a question about solving the budget deficit. "Well, the first thing we are going to do is get out of the war." Then he said "and we're probably going to have to repeal some of those tax cuts, which everyone in this room has benefited from." [He must have thought I had already left] There were some murmurs after that comment. To me this was his most impressive moment of the evening. To walk into a room full of Wall Street types who just gave you a load of cash and tell them they're going to have some new taxes if he's elected - that showed me something.
One answer I didn't like as much was in response to how he differs from Hillary. He boiled it down to one point: Hillary voted for Iraq, and Barack didn't. He cited a letter on his website that he says was written at the war's outset, in which he opposes the aggression from Day One. I respect that he took that position and have no reason to doubt it (please don't tell me he wrote multiple letters that day). And I have always been dismayed that Senate Democrats voted to authorize the potential use of force without properly investigating or controlling Bush, and they did it because they didn't want to be caught not on the bandwagon if we sailed into a quickly democratized Baghdad. Those votes lacked a conscience. But who is to say that if Obama had been a senator in 2003, he would have done any differently? I don't fault Obama for trying to make the comparison so cut and dry, but I find it a little disingenuous.
Then a Lehman Brother guy asked him about capital gains taxes, and was obnoxiously following up, challenging Obama, asking of the single mom who had the baby "well how did she have the baby in the first place?" Obama kept his cool, did not get self-righteous, just stuck to the facts and message. Interesting exchange. He left almost immediately thereafter, also to little fanfare.
I think Barack Obama is charismatic, but he presents himself with a little more arrogance than Bill Clinton or other charmers. I wonder if he can turn on a different kind of charm when he's dealing with Middle America, show a more engaging side. In the barbecue test (the winning candidate is always the guy more people would want to invite to a barbecue) he trails Edwards and McCain and maybe even Romney and Giuliani, but he's still ahead of Hillary (she's still making the potato salad in the kitchen).
Obama is an ambitious, confident guy. He sets the bar very high for himself and you can tell he is hard-working and diligent. He didn't convince me to vote for him but he didn't dissuade me either. I liked the honesty with which he answered certain questions, but he's already come under fire for comments about Israel and other black leaders. I wonder if his sense of candor will prove his downfall.