Of Sweet Potato Pie and Cheesesteak: Obama’s Philadelphia Tour

PHILADELPHIA—In an effort to boost voter turnout in the all-important battleground state of Pennsylvania, Barack Obama held four separate rallies on the afternoon of Oct. 11 in which he sought to connect with largely black audiences on economic grounds.

At each event, Obama was introduced by Governor Ed Rendell, who plainly laid out the campaign’s mission to the crowd.

“Fifty-three percent this Election Day won’t cut it, right?” Rendell said during an event in Germantown, referring to the Democratic turnout of the Philadelphia area during the primary. “I want to see Philadelphia go over 70 percent.”

The day started early, in North Philadelphia’s Progress Plaza, where Obama stood, in shirtsleeves, in a square surrounded by stores with signs like “Auto Tags,” or “Dollar World. We Are Open.”

He talked about the economy, warning that John McCain would be about as successful at managing America’s affairs as President Bush has been. But his tone, to the delight of the audience, was fiery and at times almost spiritual.

Wandering around the podium, Obama said things like, “Parents, you’ve got to parent, and fathers, you’ve got to father.” He moved comfortably and confidently on the stage and let his diction slacken into folksy familiarity. He talked about the need to “invest in cities” and relayed an anecdote about his love of sweet potato pie. At the end of his speech he talked about the possibility of the children or grandchildren of the audience members becoming president.

“We have a history of overcoming, Philadelphia!” he said.

“It doesn’t seem real,” said William Jennings, a 32-year-old satellite technician from Philadelphia who was in the church. “Until the day that he is announced, and he’s in that office sitting in that seat. Then it’s real.”

But Jennings also said he felt more willing to help Obama’s cause after seeing him in the economically depressed neighborhood.

“I like that he comes to the inner city,” he said. “I like the change he’s talking about and he seems sincere. He’s talking about what’s really going on.”

After the event, during which supporters cheered from the middle of the street between cars passing in opposite directions, the candidate and the press buses and the police and Secret Service motorcade that follow him rushed to a rally outside the Mayfair Diner, a staple of political stumping, in the northeast section of the city. Here a more integrated crowd awaited him. Hipsters perched their chins on tattooed arms as they looked out the window from above a “Shop ‘N’ Go” on the corner. Teamsters held up “Workers Win With Obama/Biden” signs. A band dressed up in sequins for the occasion. (Not everyone was so pleased. One man stormed out of a house directly adjacent to the diner, grabbed his crotch and screamed, “John McCain.” Three police officers stood watchfully on the other side of his fence and the Secret Service patrolling on the silver roof of the diner momentarily turned to look at him. Then they picked up their binoculars again to inspect the crowd.)

“If any of your neighbors say, ‘I’m not sure,’” Rendell said a few minutes later when introducing the candidate, they should be reminded that “we’re drowning. Drowning!” Obama, in his telling, was the man waiting to pull everyone out.

When he took the stage, Obama, as he did in his first appearance of the day, acknowledged what he said were McCain’s efforts to “tone down the rhetoric” at his rallies and honored the principle of disagreeing while still being respectful of each other. Some black members of Congress have said they detected racism in the McCain campaign’s “not one of us” line of attack against Obama in recent days, and blamed the Republicans for inciting crowds to threaten Obama. The McCain campaign maintains that the Obama camp is itself playing the “race card.”

Obama, however, spent most of his time talking about money, and quickly moved into the economic frustration that has caused his campaign to surge over the last month.

“But when it comes to the economy, and what families here in Philly are going through, John McCain just doesn’t get it,” he said, near one of the city’s pretzel stores and an Irish bar called McDoodles. He said that instead of talking about the economy, McCain’s advisers had made it clear they want to “spend the final weeks of this election attacking me instead.” As a result, he said, “we’ve seen these nasty attacks, and I’m sure we’ll see much more over the next 24 days.”

He added, “You know and I know America is not working the way it should be right now.” Mocking McCain’s much-mocked remark about the fundamentals of the economy being strong, he said that where he was from, a job was fundamental. He addressed himself to people who feel their jobs are endangered: “These are the Americans I’m standing with. These are the folks I’m fighting for.”

Since primary season, Obama has faced questions from prominent Democrats about his ability to appeal to working-class voters just like those assembled in front of the Mayfair Diner. But the economic woes have provided both the passion to Obama’s stump and substance to his vague promise of change. As he put it at his second event on Saturday, “Change means rebuilding this economy.”

Obama spoke more haltingly that he had at the day’s first event at Progress Plaza, and less passionately. These were the voters that wanted economic aide and not inspiration, so there was no mention of “overcoming.” He made no mention of sweet potato pie, only a coconut cream he ate at a rural diner in Ohio, and of “a yearlong supply of cheese steaks” Rendell had promised him. For a rhetorical crest he stressed that most American families began with someone coming from another country in search of a better life for their children.

After the speech, the motorcade then made its way down Germantown Avenue, where some of the broken-down houses still had blue “Hillary for President” signs in the bay windows. Stores were boarded up and there were shopping carts and broken glass under the concrete overpasses. With sirens heralding his passage through the narrow streets rarely traveled by presidential candidates, residents, almost all black, came out of their stores and houses to cheer. One man dressed in a sparkling striped suit played his flute as the caravan rolled by.

In Germantown, in the northwest section of the city, Obama again appeared before a mostly black audience at Vernon Park and talked again about the harsh McCain attacks of the last few weeks. He called them “rough stuff” that he could take for another four weeks, but that the country couldn’t take for another four years. He said the attacks were distractions, and that McCain was trying to “hoodwink ya. You know what I’m talking about.”

He called the members of the audience brothers and sisters. When explaining that his economic plan would cut taxes for Americans making less than $250,000, he polled the people in the audience to see who made that much. One woman raised her hand.

“That sister is making more than a quarter million dollars—you might want to go meet her,” he joked to the men in the crowd.

And the sweet potato pie came back in a big way.

“You gonna make me some pie?” he said, interrupting his own anecdote about ordering pie in the Ohio coffee shop. “What are you gonna make? Sweet potato pie?” Someone else offered to bake him a sweet potato pie. “We might have to have a sweet-potato-pie-eating contest,” Obama said. “I could be the judge. I know my sweet potato pie.”

Obama finished the daytime sweep in West Philadelphia, where he spoke at an intersection by Billies Boomer Lounge, the Bushfire Theater of Performing Arts (presenting “Mojo Secrets”) and the “Hope Rising Child Learning Center.” Thousands cheered him on the streets and families craned their necks to see him better from the porches.

Throughout his speech, he invoked all the “bamboozled” and “sweet potato pie” lines he could conjure, and again framed his candidacy as an achievement that many of the crowd’s grandparents would never have thought possible. But his most consistent applause lines came every time he talked about what he would do as “president of the United States of America.” Clearly, in places like West Philadelphia, there are a lot of people who still can’t believe what they’re hearing.

Of Sweet Potato Pie and Cheesesteak: Obama’s Philadelphia Tour