The Speech is his finely polished sword, a transcendent weapon. Seen and heard on a thousand YouTube postings, Senator Barack Obama’s speeches have made a happening of that hoariest of campaign forms, the stump speech.
But Mr. Obama sheaths that sword more often now. He is grounding his lofty rhetoric in the more prosaic language of white-working-class discontent, adjusting it to the less welcoming terrain of Pennsylvania. His preferred communication now is the town-hall-style meeting.
So in Johnstown, a small, economically depressed city tucked in a valley hard by the Little Conemaugh River, Mr. Obama on Saturday spoke to the gritty reality of a city that ranks dead last on the Census Bureau’s list of places likely to attract American workers. His traveling companion, Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, introduced the candidate as an “underdog fighter for an underdog state.”
Mr. Obama, a quicksilver political student, picked up that cue. “I got into public service as an organizer,” Mr. Obama told these 1,200 mostly white Pennsylvanians in a local high school gymnasium. “There were a group of churches, mostly Catholic parishes, and they hired me for $12,000 plus car fare.”
Then, echoing Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s focus on bread-and-butter concerns, Mr. Obama went on to talk about the price of gas and to offer the precise amount of his health care premium and to explain exactly what he would do about the foreclosure rate and Big Oil and Big Energy and how he would stop companies from moving to China.
Mr. Obama’s effort to master a plain-spoken and blunt language that extends back centuries in Pennsylvania is accompanied by no small stakes. Voters here, as in neighboring Ohio, where Mr. Obama lost the white and aging blue-collar vote, tend to elect politicians whose language rarely soars and whose policy prescriptions come studded with detail.
“The problem with talking about hope all the time is that these are not hopeful lands; Obama is talking change to people who equate change with life getting worse,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic Party consultant who has studied the political culture of these working-class states with a Talmudic intensity.
Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama’s Democratic rival, has studied this argot. Her style of declamation tends toward that of the school valedictorian, but she grounds her talks in detail after detail after detail — her plan for stanching foreclosures, for tuberculosis, for tax breaks and so on and on, every program coming with a precise dollar sign attached.
A thrill these talks are not, but G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, noted that politics that attended to the precarious details of life could provide comfort to the hard-pressed.
“If you’re an unemployed steelworker, a former coal miner, you want to know about job training, who pays your health care,” Dr. Madonna said. “Obama’s speeches are uplifting but without much specificity, and that’s a tough sell for working people who don’t live in a world of ideas.”
Mr. Obama grabbed a big chunk of the male working-class vote in Wisconsin, and another chunk in Virginia and in Maryland. But Pennsylvania is both blue-collar and aging — it has the third highest median age in the nation. Pennsylvania’s culture, as the historian David Hackett Fischer noted in his book “Albion’s Seed,” is rooted in the English midlands, where Scandinavian and English left a muscular and literal imprint. These are people distrustful of rank, and finery, and high-flown words. Mr. Obama does not shrink from arguing that the days when high school graduates could find good-paying union job in mills and factories are gone. In Johnstown, he spoke of retrofitting shuttered steel mills into high-tech factories to build wind-powered turbines.
“There is a romance in the Rust Belt about bringing back those old industrial jobs and the culture those jobs represented,” Mr. Sheinkopf said. “Their message to a politician is, Restore our jobs, restore our culture.”
(Senator John McCain, now the presumptive Republican nominee, took this same lesson in the Michigan primary, when he suggested that high-paying industrial jobs were a thing of the past. His opponent, Mitt Romney, insisted he could somehow summon that lost time, and he won handily).
The candidate’s best weapon in this race just might be Senator Casey. Laconic to the core, a politician who dominates the working-class cities of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, he seems intent on refashioning his candidate — still very much a long shot in the primary. Mr. Obama stood and watched; he might as well have been taking notes.
Filed under: News