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Last: Obama the Uniter?

3:23 PM, Jan 4, 2008 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Concord, New Hampshire
After dominating the youth vote and expanding the voter base in Iowa, Obama is out to do the same in New Hampshire, holding a lunchtime event at Concord High School. Banners here suggest that (boys tennis aside) CHS athletics aren't particularly notable. But the school did win the state "Spirit Championship" in '90, '92, and '96. Even more impressive, CHS dominated the NHIAA "Sportsmanship Award" throughout the '90s. So it's fitting that Obama has brought his peppy, above-it-all campaign here this afternoon. And if he can somehow manage to capture this untapped 13- to 17-year-old demographic, then he will have a major breakthrough that just might turn this primary process on its head.

I kid! (Though not about the "Spirit Championships" and the "Sportsmanship Awards." CHS has the banners to prove them.) And although the voters Obama's trolling for today are more likely to turn out for him in his 2012 reelection campaign, the appearance is a fine demonstration of his appeal.

The gym is packed nearly to the rafters with students and locals--perhaps a thousand people--and Obama is a leisurely hour late. The crowd is incredibly enthusiastic, giving him a huge ovation when he finally makes his way to the podium. Interestingly, when Obama asks for a show of hands as to who is still undecided, nearly half of the room raises their hands.

This afternoon's speech is more substantial than this morning's. Obama dwells momentarily on healthcare, promising that he'll reform it by the end of his first term. He also talks about having manufacturing standards in foreign trade agreements. And he mentions Iraq, saying, "As president I will end this war in Iraq; I will bring our troops home." No news there.

Obama makes his obligatory pitch for hope, but spends most of his time expounding on the idea of unity and talking about how he plans to bring Democrats, Republicans, and independents together.

He promises to deliver "a politics that is based on practicality and not ideology." He then says that it's okay to talk to the other side, because, "If you know who you are, if you know what you believe in . . . then you can afford to reach out to those who disagree with you" because you won't compromise your values. Which sounds a lot like a politics based on ideology, not practicality. But the spirited, sportsmanlike crowd gives him a pass on this.

Obama says he wants to create a politics that recognizes that there are a lot of people who aren't Democrats who have lost faith in the country. He wants to unite them. But what about the people who haven't lost faith? Obama isn't seeking to bridge this very real divide. He simply wants to unite the people who already agree with him.

The trouble is trying to figure out who those people are and what they--and Obama--believe. He consistently avoids those questions on the stump, instead talking about inclusiveness and hope.

But from time to time, he shows the left a little leg. At CHS he uses his standard formulation, noting gravely that "Our nation is at war, our planet is in peril," neatly signaling that he's anti-war and a global-warming alarmist in only ten words.

He also winks at those who think the war on terrorism is an elaborate Republican hoax saying, "I want to put an end to the use of 9/11 as a tactic to scare up votes."

And at one point during the speech he rattles off a list of foreign policy impulses: build schools around the world to teach math and science; close Guantanamo; no more torture; out of Iraq. The applause in reaction to this litany is so deafening that even with Obama shouting at full-voice, it's almost impossible to hear him.

Finally, Obama tells the crowd that he wants to create "a progressive agenda that stretches across this country." More of that pesky ideology!

None of this is a state secret, of course. But at some point Obama's going to have to reconcile his calls for unity and practicality with these left-ish political positions.