PARMA HEIGHTS, Ohio—The crowd at the Valley Forge high school last night was itching to clap.
But Barack Obama was not in bring-down-the-house mode. He was in boring mode. He was in talking about energy and gas prices and “You see it all across Ohio, people are working for less” mode. As Hillary Clinton’s closing argument more sharply criticizes him as a government neophyte with a knack for inspiring speeches, but without the appropriate seriousness or experience to be commander in chief, Obama is turning on the policy, answering questions at town-hall-style meetings, and seeking to assure voters of his governing chops and stop Clinton in her must-win of must-win states.
They had come to applaud. The Obama aide who performed the microphone check before Obama arrived had promised they could clap. “We’ll get the show started pretty soon,” he had said. And when Obama did arrive and speak, they rewarded even the smallest applause line with eager clapping.
But Obama seemed to be operating under the impression articulated by Clinton’s supporter Governor Ted Strickland of Ohio in an interview yesterday, that “Ohioans take their politics very seriously.” And so in this battleground county, the Illinois Senator talked about the “15,000 foreclosures in this county alone” and said, “My job as commander in chief will be to keep you safe,” and promised to use the “military wisely” and treat “our veterans properly when they come home.” He talked about restoring a spirit of diplomacy to international relations, and reiterated his familiar defense of why direct and unconditional negotiations between the president and antagonistic leaders, something he said Clinton and John McCain and George Bush all oppose him on, was the right way to go.
Only at the end of his stump speech did he get his first standing ovation—not a metric for a campaign performance one is likely to see in the description of a Clinton event. Leaning down to the microphone and speaking louder and in quicker meter than his usual, rhythmic stump speech, Obama talked about the things he wanted America to lead on.
“We will lead on climate change, and helping poor countries deal with H.I.V. Aids and we will lead on the genocide in Darfur,” said Obama, stirring some applause. “And I want to lead as well by example on civil liberties and civil rights,” he added, stirring them more. And “that’s why will we close Guantanamo, and restore habeas corpus,” and then the crowd jumped out of their seats when he said “because we will have a government… that believes in the constitution and will defend the constitution of the Unites States of America.”
Not surprisingly then, the first question he answered was about how his experience as a constitutional law professor would inform his presidency.
During the question-and-answer period, Obama once again defended himself against the Clinton campaign’s renewed criticism that he is not ready to be commander in chief, illustrated most recently in a duplicate of a scary Mondale-era ad featuring a telephone ringing ominously at 3 in the morning.
“Just about everything I predicted would happen happened, came to pass,” he said. “So when you think about who you want answering that phone call at three in the morning, you might want to consider who had the judgment not to be bulldozed into supporting a war that I believe has made us less safe.”
Also, referring to what he said was the secretive and thus wrong way Clinton went about trying to pass health care reform in 1993, he said that Clinton was always talking about experience. “Well one of the experiences I have is actually listening to people,” he said.
Otherwise, the most memorable moment of the event came from the last questioner, a woman in the back of the room who asked “my question is about immigration and gay marriage. What are you going to do about it?”
“Gay immigrants?” joked Obama, before answering the question.