The Magazine

Saint Barack of Iowa

The Democratic contest comes down to Hope versus Muscle.

Dec 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 14 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Des Moines, Iowa

At 10:15 P.M. last Tuesday night, Barack Obama was gazing vacantly out the window of a gold Chevy Tahoe as it moved deliberately through the sleet to the Sheraton Hotel in Iowa City. When the large SUV came to a stop in front of the hotel, Obama, wearing just slacks and a white oxford despite the sub-freezing temperature, slowly opened his door and looked at the sliding glass doors some 20 feet away. The expression on his face suggested he was pondering a very serious question: How am I going to find the energy to make it to my room?

But he did it. And as he made his way through the lobby, willing one foot in front of the other, he even summoned enough strength for a wave to the three people working at the front desk. "How's it going, guys?" he said, not worried that one of those he was addressing was a woman. Obama's Secret Service detail held the elevator for him and moments later he was gone.

It was quite a contrast. Just 30 minutes earlier, Obama was standing below a two-story American flag hanging from the jogging track at the University of Iowa Field House. Thousands of young people surrounded him as he explained why he should be president of the United States. They interrupted him more than a dozen times with enthusiastic applause. He had energy to spare and delivered a lively and animated performance.

"I don't want to talk about fear," he bellowed into a handheld microphone, gesturing with an authority that matched his outrage. "I want to talk about the future. Fear of terrorism, fear of immigration, fear of gay people--we don't need a politics of fear, we need a politics of hope."

He had said these same things three hours earlier at a rally on the campus of Grinnell College. Before Grinnell, he had participated in a two-hour debate on National Public Radio. And before that, he gave an interview to the staff of the Des Moines Register. Before it all, he had talked to his strategists about how he would spend the four weeks that remain before the Iowa caucuses on January 3, 2008. He's been doing this--or some version of it--for more than 10 months. But as he stood under the bright lights at the University of Iowa, he gave no hint that he was as exhausted as he would appear when he finally made it to his hotel.

If Barack Obama is to have any chance at winning the Democratic nomination for president, he must beat Hillary Clinton in Iowa. That is not an insight. Everyone from Obama's wife ("Iowa will make the difference. If Barack doesn't win Iowa, it is just a dream") to Karl Rove ("Iowa is your chance to best her. If you do not do it there, odds are you never will anywhere") has noted this.

And no one understands this better than Clinton herself. Two weeks ago, she hired 100 new staffers in the state. Then last week she unleashed a torrent of harsh attacks on Obama and oddly announced to voters that she would enjoy getting nasty. "I have been for months on the receiving end of rather consistent attacks," she said. "Well now the fun part starts."

When a reporter asked if she was suggesting that Obama has character problems, she responded: "It's beginning to look a lot like that."

Frontrunners do not typically launch direct attacks. But Hillary Clinton is no longer the Democratic frontrunner, at least in Iowa. A Des Moines Register Iowa Poll of likely Democratic caucus goers taken in late November found that 28 percent favored Obama, 25 percent Clinton, and 23 percent John Edwards.

Obama is picking up steam in other important early states. Two polls in New Hampshire show him gaining on Clinton. And two recent surveys in South Carolina have Clinton leading Obama by just two percentage points. National polls still show Clinton with bigger leads--double-digit--but the growing Obama momentum appears there, too.

The bottom line one month before the Iowa caucuses is this: Hillary Clinton's victory was inevitable as long as it seemed inevitable. It is no longer inevitable. And no one has gained from this new reality as much as Barack Obama.

Barack Hussein Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961, to a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas. They separated when Obama was two and Obama's father eventually returned to Kenya. Later, when his mother married an Indonesian man and pursued an academic interest in anthropology, she moved there and took her son. At ten, he returned to Hawaii and lived with his maternal grandparents. He attended college, first at Occidental College and later at Columbia University.

Obama moved to Chicago where, as he's fond of noting in his campaign speeches, he began his dedication to community and public service by working for $12,000 a year (plus car expenses) to help displaced steelworkers on the city's South Side. After three years, he enrolled at Harvard Law School, where he went on to serve as the first black president of the Law Review.

Obama returned to Chicago to practice law and teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago. He also began writing the memoir that became Dreams from My Father, a critically-acclaimed examination of his ancestry, his early life (including teenage drug use), and the role of race in America. In 1996, Obama was elected to the Illinois State Senate, and, in 2004, to the U.S. Senate. Most Americans first came to know him during that year when, as a candidate virtually assured of becoming the third black American elected to the Senate since Reconstruction, he was invited to give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.

Even in this hyperpartisan setting, Obama sought words that would place him above the back-and-forth sniping of left and right.

Even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us--the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of "anything goes." Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America--there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America--there's the United States of America.

He took his shots at Republicans and praised John Kerry, but those passages were short and quickly forgotten. Even his partisan comments did not sound partisan. The 17-minute speech showcased a young man who was poised, but not slick; confident, but not cocky; opinionated, but not dogmatic; and wise-seeming despite his youth. Obama overshadowed everyone who spoke from the podium that week, including Kerry. And on the floor of the convention that night, many Democrats lamented that they did not have an inspirational figure like Obama to challenge George W. Bush and the Republicans.

They do now, of course. Harris Wofford, the former Pennsylvania senator who endorsed Obama in Iowa last week, says he hasn't seen such an uplifting leader for decades. "I haven't had this kind of hope since the days of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King," he says. "He's touched my soul."

This is the kind of overstatement often generated by an exciting day on the campaign trail. But Wofford is qualified to make it. He worked with the Kennedys and walked alongside King. Bill Clinton appointed him CEO of AmeriCorps, and Wofford helped Hillary Clinton craft her failed national health care plan.

The themes Obama laid out in his convention speech still feature prominently in his campaign rhetoric. In fact several lines were repeated verbatim in the stump speech he was delivering during the middle of last week. It was College Week, as Obama participated in town halls at two Iowa schools and gave speeches at four others.

At each stop, he began his remarks with process. He thanked his precinct captains, often by name, and then provided a thorough tutorial on the Iowa caucuses. (He uses an index card to make sure he gets names right but otherwise speaks without notes.) At the University of Iowa, he joked that students would not have anything better to do on January 3 as their Hawkeyes will not be playing in a bowl game that night.

Obama's message of idealism naturally appeals to younger voters, and his looks--a cross between Denzel Washington and Alfred E. Neuman--make him look like one of them. But there is a problem with his popularity amongst this age group. Students will be away on winter break during the caucuses. At each stop, he tells them to caucus in their Iowa hometowns or if they are from out of state to come back. Although the latter request often elicited laughter, it's clear people are taking him seriously. "I'm coming back to caucus," says Zoe Sigman, a freshman at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Sigman, whose dark hair features prominent blonde streaks and who wears black fingernail polish, says that she will drive the four hours from Chicago back to campus to support Obama. And she insists that many out-of-state students will do the same.

When Obama finally turns to substance, he speaks with an authority his limited experience would suggest he hasn't earned. It doesn't matter. He sounds like a man who knows what he's talking about and knows what he wants to do. There are no questions that catch him off guard, no issues he hasn't considered. His answers almost always include precisely the right mix of policy wonkery ("I know enough to be your president") and small talk ("I'm cool enough to be your friend").

When a student at Cornell asks him for his views on the value of a liberal arts education, Obama starts with a joke (I went to a liberal arts college and look at me now) and then spends several minutes on the pedagogical advantages of the liberal arts. He finishes where he started. "So, right on with a liberal arts education," he says, with a mock fist pump to accentuate "right on." The students look at one another and nod their heads with approval.

And later, at Wartburg College, a young boy, perhaps seven or eight years old, asks: "How are you going to stop, like, immigration and all that stuff that's happening right now?"

You know what? I'm going to talk about immigration and I'm going to talk about all that stuff. [Laughter] Because those two things aren't always the same. We have a real problem with immigration in this country. The fact of the matter is, since George Bush took office, 3.5 million undocumented workers came into this country. 3.5 million! We have--it's estimated, but we have 12 million illegal workers in the country.

Now, how we solve that problem? Number one: We have to have stronger border security. That primarily doesn't mean physical barriers--we're not going to build a wall along the 2,700-mile border. But what it does mean is we have to have patrols, we have to have surveillance. We're putting more money into patrolling our borders. That's point number one. And by the way, we also have to control the 40 percent of immigrants who come in legally and overstay their visas. Which means we have to monitor that more effectively.

Number two: The most important thing we can do to discourage illegal immigration is to crack down on employers who are hiring these folks [applause] hiring folks because they don't want to pay American workers what it takes to get them working. I don't blame the worker from Mexico who's making two dollars a day for coming here and trying to make $5 an hour. Look, if Canada paid $100 an hour, I'll bet there would be a whole bunch of folks who were flooding over the border in the other direction. But the employer--what they're doing is they're undercutting American labor. And oftentimes they're motivated by greed. They don't want to pay the minimum wage, they don't want to observe worker safety laws, they don't want unions. And we have to take that seriously. During the course of the Bush Administration, when you average it out, you were more likely to be struck by lightning than to be prosecuted for hiring undocumented workers. And that's not fair. And so we've got to have a system where we are placing big penalties on employers and creating a tamper-proof system to verify someone's employment status.

Now, here's the third step, which may be controversial. It is controversial. This is where "the stuff" comes in. What are we going to do with the 12 million people who are here? The politics of fear says we're going to wrap them up, no amnesty, throw them back. But you know what? That's just talk. That's just talk that doesn't solve problems. For us to round up every single undocumented worker in the country we'd have to devote every single law enforcement resource we have. It'd probably cost us billions of dollars in additional resources. We'd have to stop prosecuting regular crimes like auto theft or burglary. Because the only thing police would be doing would be rounding up people. The only thing we'd be using our jails for would be locking up people. Farm workers, factory workers, busboys at restaurants--you know, who pose such a severe threat to public safety. So when people say "Deport 'em," they're not being honest! They're trying to gain a political advantage. That's what they're trying to do. Once we have strong border security and serious employer sanctions, then we've got to get those 12 million people out of the shadows and that means giving them a pathway to legalization. It means--they've broken the law. They've broken the law. So they should be punished. You're going to pay a significant fine. You're going to learn English. You're going to go to the back of the line and cannot get citizenship before people who have been waiting legally to get into this country. But if you do all those things then you've got a possibility of becoming a legal resident and ultimately a citizen of this country. That means you can't undermine U.S. workers anymore because now you're subject to minimum wage laws, you're subject to worker safety laws, and you're subject to the ability to unionize. And if we do those things we will have a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants and those are both traditions of ours. And we don't have to betray either of those traditions.

It is a revealing answer, for while Obama eventually settles on the mainstream liberal position--path to citizenship, crack down on employers, don't punish the workers--he does so only after acknowledging (and in some cases, embracing) the concerns of conservatives. He begins by criticizing George W. Bush on immigration from the right and says that his first priority in ending illegal immigration would be securing the borders. (Ask John McCain if it's important to list border security first when detailing your solution.)

"Hillary Clinton is running from the center," says Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political scientist. "John Edwards is running from the left. And Obama is running from above. He wants to be above politics."

This is the Obama trick, and it explains why, despite his very liberal voting record in the Senate (and in the Illinois Senate before that), he is not viewed as a left-wing ideologue. When a student asks Obama for his views on the Second Amendment, he reminds his audience that he taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago and is thus familiar with the arguments regarding the right to bear arms. He acknowledges "a tradition of gun ownership in this country that can be respected," and says that his academic studies convinced him gun ownership "is an individual right and not just the right of a militia."

But he was not finished. "Like all rights, though, they are constrained by the needs and the rights of the community." Obama then spoke of 34 students who were killed on the streets of Chicago and called for sensible gun control to prevent senseless death. He speaks of the importance of parental involvement in education before listing the many ways in which he would expand the role of the federal government in the schools.

At Cornell College, Obama spoke of personal responsibility before unveiling a series of New Deal-lite programs to address the "nation's most pressing challenges." He said: "FDR not only enlisted Americans to create employment, he targeted that service to build our infrastructure and conserve our environment. JFK not only called on a new generation, he made their service a bridge to the developing world, and a bright light of American values in the darkest days of the Cold War."

Obama plans to expand AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000, and double the size of the Peace Corps. How would we solve problems in education? A Classroom Corps, of course. And what about the environment? Energy Corps. What will old people do? Senior Corps. And how will people know about all of these opportunities to get paid for volunteering? "We'll expand USA Freedom Corps .  .  ."

And all of that came before Obama came to the second thing he'll do: "invest in ideas that can help us meet our common challenges." How? A "Social Investment Fund Network." What else? An "American Opportunity Tax Credit" and a "Green Job Corps."

Obama often seems to favor more government, even if his own campaign proposals do not reflect it. If his health care plan is not quite Canadian, that is much more a matter of practicality than desire. "If you're starting from scratch," he told the New Yorker's Larissa MacFarquhar, "then a single-payer system would probably make sense. But we've got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off."

Later, when she asked for an example of an issue on which he had changed his mind, Obama said, "I'm probably more humble now about the speed with which government programs can solve every problem." So the issue is not one of effectiveness, but efficiency. Government can solve every problem, just not quickly. Perhaps sensing his overstatement, Obama tried to recover with a conservative-sounding non-sequitur. "For example, I think the impact of parents and communities is at least as significant as the amount of money that's put into education."

The most striking thing about Obama on the campaign trail is how little time he spends discussing national security issues. He acknowledges, characteristically, that we are at war, but then does little to explain how he proposes to win. We will withdraw from Iraq in 16 months, he promises, and fight al Qaeda in Afghanistan. What if al Qaeda remains in Iraq? Aside from a "strike force" ready to take them out, we are left to wonder.

Mostly, Obama thinks America will be stronger when she is more respected, and she will be more respected when she is more engaged. (He does not explain the simultaneous growth of al Qaeda and multilateralism in the 1990s.) To that end, he boasts that he plans to talk to our enemies, including Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Although Hillary Clinton criticized his position as "naive," when he first articulated it in a debate, crowds here in Iowa give him sustained applause every time he mentions it.

The other subject that gets little attention from Obama on the campaign trail is Hillary Clinton. Although the former first lady intensified her attacks on him over the past week, Obama has largely chosen to ignore her. Wofford, for one, thinks the attacks won't help her. "Starting an assault on each other is unfortunate. I'm sorry that she's taken that tack," he says. "It's not helpful."

He may be correct. Iowa is a state in which negative attacks rarely prove effective. And the media criticism of Clinton since she first took a more aggressive posture has been considerable.

But Clinton does have several distinct advantages going into the final weeks of the campaign in Iowa. According to a report on the Washington Post blog, two of the nation's largest and most active labor organizations, the AFL-CIO and AFSCME, are running ads for her in Iowa. (AFSCME plans to spend more than $1 million boosting Clinton on television.) EMILY's List, the Washington-based liberal advocacy group, is also planning extensive get-out-the-vote efforts on Clinton's behalf.

Obama supporters will tell you that their man, too, has been building an impressive ("unprecedented" is a favorite word) ground operation. Indeed, it is difficult to leave an Obama event without being assaulted by dozens of campaign volunteers shoving clipboards in your face and urging you to sign an Obama supporter card, which provides the campaign an opportunity to get you to the caucuses.

But it looks increasingly as if the Democratic contest might come down to a battle of Hope vs. Muscle. If Clinton is deploying the strength of her machine (inherited from her husband), Obama is putting his faith in hope. And Oprah. The ever-popular talk show hostess--with more than 7 million viewers daily--will be traveling to the early primary states on behalf of Obama, hoping to enlist her admirers in his cause.

But Obama supporters believe they have a built-in advantage because of the way things happen in Iowa. The caucuses work in an unusual way. At 1,784 precincts throughout the state, Iowans gather to discuss and then select their candidates. At each site, supporters of the various candidates form groups and separate themselves from the rest of the crowd. At a designated time, participants are invited to speak on behalf of their candidate and to urge others to join.

This is crucial: A candidate must have the support of 15 percent of those gathered at that caucus in order to be considered "viable." If he does not meet that threshold, his supporters join the group of their second choice. This process continues--interrupted by mini-speeches and lots of dealmaking--until all the caucus-goers have distributed themselves to "viable" candidates. At this point there is a final headcount. (Don't ask how the state's convention delegates are ultimately chosen.) So second choices--and maybe even third--will be huge. And that should be good for Obama.

I spoke to a lawyer from Des Moines whose first choice is Dennis Kucinich. (We agreed that I would not use his name because, well, would you want your name used if you supported Dennis Kucinich?) Since Kucinich is unlikely to be viable, the lawyer's second choice will be particularly important. Right now it's among Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama. The lawyer told me that he has problems with each of them. Clinton is too opportunistic, too corporate, too Washington. Edwards is too insincere. Obama is too inexperienced. Still, of the three, he prefers Obama.

Obama's inexperience is actually the flip-side of a positive quality: He is fresh and voters believe that he is more likely to bring real change to Washington than the other two senators. This, of course, is precisely what Obama wants Iowa voters to think and why he often speaks in front of a large blue banner that reads: "Change We Can Believe In." In one of his few references to Hillary Clinton on the stump--like almost all of the others, indirect--he says: "I don't want to spend the next year or the next four years re-fighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s."

How many Iowa voters, having chosen not to support Hillary Clinton as their first candidate, are going to choose her as their second? Dennis Goldford, from Drake, says that many Democrats see Clinton as "back to the future." And that's not good for her. "For Democrats, the common theme is change, and nobody represents change like Obama. If they've already made their decision not to support Hillary, they're much more likely to move to Obama."

And if Obama wins Iowa, he may well give the major address at the Democratic National Convention this year.

Stephen F. Hayes, a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President (HarperCollins).