PHILADELPHIA—Barack Obama’s final push through Pennsylvania has shown the combative, angry side of a candidate and campaign that had once been defined by its good cheer and condemnation of negative tactics. Despite the trappings of cheeriness—old-timey whistle-stop train tour, frequent professions of “love” for supporters—Obama’s closing argument was a distinctly negative one, designed to give the state’s significant percentage of undecided voters an uneasy feeling about Clinton, who is the Tuesday primary’s favorite, and to start laying the groundwork for his criticism of Republican nominee John McCain.
At a number of well-attended public appearances, Obama depicted Clinton as a divisive, disingenuous Democratic agent of the Republican attack machine—a dishonest politician willing, in her desperation, to take the party down with her.
And while Obama characterized his criticisms as reasons to reject Clinton’s negative politics, he displayed an unmistakably negative edge of his own, most notably when his campaign held a conference call with Bosnia veterans that questioned Clinton’s fitness to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
It all started innocently enough.
On Saturday morning, in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, yellow tape, secret service agents and metal detectors cordoned off the steps leading down to track 10, where Obama met the “Georgia 300,” a royal blue 1930 railcar covered in bunting and signs that said “On Track For Change.”
“Let’s get on this train,” said Obama. Inside there was a bed to sleep in, a wooden dresser, a small conference room, and room with flowers and a double sink. The kitchen had a stove and microwave and oil and vinegar on the shelves. Obama greeted Amtrak workers and pointed amicably at the press before they were sent unceremoniously down to the opposite car, a regular Amtrak train. He shouted to some Pittsburgh-bound day trippers waiting across the track. “Tell everyone there I said hello” and pulled the train’s whistle and exclaimed, “That is too much fun.”
Throughout the day, Obama projected a sunny disposition as he campaigned in rolled-up sleeves and slacks. In Wynnewood, Mr. Obama’s first stop, the train pulled in to the lazy, carefree lyrics of Will Smith’s “Summertime” and a cheering crowd greeted the candidate with his face on their t-shirts and his name on their stickers.
Then he started talking about his opponent.
He said that she was “throwing everything at me and seeing if something sticks,” and then: “She’s taken different positions at different times on issues as fundamental as trade, or even the war, to suit the politics of the moment. And when she gets caught at it, the notion is, well, you know what, that’s just politics.”
One woman in the crowd, Lisa Barsky, 55, a psychologist from nearby Bala Cynwyd described herself as a “shifter” who had moved her support from Clinton to Obama because she considered him a greater unifying force. Still, she was a little put off by his attacks.
“I wish he wouldn’t,” she said. “He can be strong. But you don’t have to get down to somebody’s level — you don’t have to get into the fistfight.”
Obama got back on the train car. The whistle blew and the crowd cheered. Along the track, as the train slowly rolled by, farmers waved and smiled and he smiled back.
But Obama was only getting warmed up. His attacks on Clinton sharpened.
“Her basic argument is that the slash-and burn, say-anything, do-anything, special-interest-driven politics is how it works,” he said, speaking in front of a small train station with a rusted roof. “And so she has taken more money than any other candidate, Democrat or Republican combined. She also believes that the nature of politics is that you say what the people want to hear. So maybe you say something about trade when you are campaigning with your husband eight, ten, 12 years ago and you say something different now that you are out campaigning in Ohio, Pennsylvania. Maybe you say one thing about the war when it looks like the war is popular and maybe you say something else about the war when it gets to be unpopular.”
“What’s happened is,” he continued, “Senator Clinton has internalized a lot of the strategies and tactics that have made Washington such a miserable place, where all we do is bicker and all we do is fight.”
After Obama finished speaking and signing books, Belinda Chambers, a 48-year-old information technology worker from Berwyn, angled her iPhone for a shot at the candidate as he made his way back to the train. She said she didn’t begrudge Obama for his sharper approach.
“I don’t know how he could survive in Washington without some of their tactics,” she said.
The Obama campaign says the nastier tack is a necessary one. According to one staffer, speaking on background, Obama needed to make clear the distinction between the candidates and hit Clinton on what the Obama campaign perceives as her greatest vulnerability: trustworthiness. Likewise, according to the staffer, a conference call with Bosnia veterans held by the Obama campaign was intended to raise the question of her credibility by “keeping in the bloodstream” her embarrassingly inaccurate portrayal of a 1996 visit to Bosnia, which she said had taken place under sniper fire.
(During the conference call, one veteran, Walter Stewart, argued that Clinton would not be fit as president to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, because that soldier might have been killed by sniper fire. Stewart said that the point was valid because it constituted “a point of honor.” Under pressure from the Clinton campaign, the Obama campaign eventually distanced itself from the comments.)
In Downington, Obama again called into question Clinton’s credibility. And later, in Lancaster, — where Obama spoke in front of thousands of people overlooked by rooftop snipers surveying the crowd with binoculars – he said, “Senator Clinton is an intelligent person,” before going on to detail her lesser qualities. He concluded “I’m not interested in mimicking what the Republicans did to the Clintons for 20 years.”
The reaction was mixed.
“A couple of times I said to myself, ‘That’s not true,’” Jill Carney, 51, an undecided Democrat and college teacher from Lancaster, said of Obama’s comments about Clinton and her policies. Asked what effect his more pointed comments had, she responded, “It makes me go the other way.”
The candidate finished the day under the green-tiled dome of the Harrisburg statehouse, surrounded by thousands of onlookers, one of whom held a sign reading “Obama Will Fix Everything.”
“I don’t mind the silly-season politics,” Obama said at a certain point. He argued that the difference between his campaign and Clinton’s was, “We are not trying to feed people cynicism.”
On Sunday, as a high school gym full of Pennsylvanians waited for him to speak in Reading, one undecided voter, Vicky Achenbach, a 27-year-old grad student, said the sniping was inevitable but she hoped Obama wouldn’t go negative. “It’s a shame if he has to go there. I’m sure there’s a lot of other things he could say.”
Obama did have a lot to say. And so did the crowd.
“This is a feisty crowd — what did y’all eat this morning?” Obama asked.
The crowd was particularly responsive to Obama’s sharp criticisms of John McCain and Hillary Clinton.
“We cannot afford a third George Bush term, and that is what John McCain is offering, a third Bush term,” said Obama. As he has done all weekend, he raced through McCain’s military service by saying “I respect John McCain, he is a real American hero,” but then proceeded to attack the Arizona senator for his position on the war in Iraq.
ually, he moved onto an extended criticism of Clinton.
“Senator Clinton is a smart person, she is a hard working person she is a tenacious person,” Obama said, echoing Marc Anthony’s “Brutus is an honorable man,” speech. (Obama ignored the guy in the back of the gym who called out “She lies.”)
“I think we have to change the tone of our politics,” Obama said, in the middle of his rant on Clinton. He added, “Our campaign’s not perfect. You get elbowed enough, eventually, you start throwing some elbows back.”
Achenbach, the grad student who was wary of the negative attacks before Obama spoke, apparently didn’t hear any.
“People need to know where she stands compared to where he stands,” she said after Obama’s speech. “And he did that.”