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Great Orator

Barack Obama shines at the NAACP convention

DETROIT, Michigan

Unless you are Abraham Lincoln and you're dedicating a Civil War memorial, it is virtually impossible to say something meaningful in three minutes. You can get through five or maybe six hundred words, which is the equivalent of two or three paragraphs, at best. And if you're appearing at a public event, you'll have to spend some of your time profusely thanking your hosts and flattering the audience. That leaves even less time to make an impression.

And yet an impression is exactly what Barack Obama managed to make on Thursday, during his opening remarks at an NAACP candidates forum here. He began by doing precisely what you'd expect a politician to do in this situation: Play to the crowd. After tying his personal story into the organization's history--he announced his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, the same place the NAACP got its start--he decried the high rates of HIV in the African-American community, protested criminal sentencing guidelines that penalize black criminals unfairly, and blasted the government's handling of Hurricane Katrina.

But then Obama deftly turned what might otherwise have been a standard special-interest group pitch into a broader affirmation of liberalism--one that captured the idea's essence as well as any statement as I've heard in recent memory and one that addressed an audience far more diverse, racially and ideologically, than the one assembled for the NAACP's convention:

We know the government can't solve every problem. We know that we've got obligations to ourselves and obligations to our children that no government can meet. We don't expect government to guarantee success in life. But when so many children, when millions of children start off in the race of life so far behind only because of race, only because of class, that's a betrayal of our ideals. That's not just an African-American problem. That is an American problem that we have to solve.

It was the second time in two weeks I'd seen Obama shine like this. And it's no coincidence that, both times, the audience was largely African-American and the focus of the discussion was that community's concerns. (The last event was a debate at Howard University.) Obama was clearly the crowd favorite here, judging by the stickers audience members were wearing and the roar with which they greeted his appearance. Indeed, Christopher Dodd, whose turn came next, may have had the funniest line of the day: "I want to thank the NAACP for allowing me to follow Barack Obama here," he said with a smile.

But the difference between the NAACP forum and the Howard debate was that Obama's rivals were in top form, too. Hillary Clinton showcased her now-familiar confidence and command of policy, endorsing programs like universal pre-kindergarten as one of the best available tools for combating poverty among African-Americans. But she also worked harder to challenge her audience, something she's not always done so well (but her husband famously did very well during the 1990s). "As president, when I work for universal health care, I'm going to ask people to take better care of themselves. And when I try to reform education, I'm going to ask students to study and take advantage of these opportunities."

Last time out, John Edwards ran through his policy proposals like a laundry list. This time, he wove them into his "Two Americas" theme seamlessly. He talked about the work he's done to spotlight poverty--work he plans to continue in his campaign, starting with upcoming swings through New Orleans and the South--and sought to portray his campaign as something more than just an effort to get somebody elected. "We need a movement, brothers and sisters," he said. "If you want to live in a moral and just America and you want to see America once again leading in a moral and just world, we're going to have to do this together, every single one of us."

Still, I also thought both Clinton's and Edwards's political weaknesses came through on Thursday. Clinton is a fine speaker mechanically--she's lucid and crisp, even when speaking off the cuff. (That's a testimony to her smarts, a not insignificant asset for a president.) But there is no music in her voice. She speaks in a true monotone, varying the volume but not the sound or even pace. When she wants to emphasize a point--like when she blasted Bush (appropriately) for opposing expansions of children's health insurance programs--she just gets loud. When she wants to walk through an argument, she gets soft. That gets the substance of her message across, certainly, but it's not exactly inspiring.

Edwards, the famously accomplished trial lawyer, has no such problems with rhetoric. But, lately, he's begun leaning on his personal story as a crutch. When there was a question about trade, he talked about his father's experience as a mill worker; when he talked about appointing judges, he talked about his experience watching judges in the South during his youth. That's all fine and well, but at some point, I think, the personal story starts to seem like a shtick and even a substitute for policy--which is ironic because, if you look through his campaign material, his policies are as well-thought out as anyone's. (Indeed, as I've written before, so far his health care plan is the best out there.)

By contrast, Obama is a nearly flawless orator when he is at his best--as he was on Thursday. And it wasn't just in the opening remarks. In his concluding statement, he again twisted his appeal to the NAACP into something broader--this time, a call to change the culture of Washington. "Words alone are not enough," he said, "because the fact is every two years or four years, politicians do come before the NAACP. They go to church. They drive by poverty stricken neighborhoods. They say the right things. They press the right buttons. They sing from the same hymnals. But after the debates and after the elections, all too often, the promises are forgotten and the passion fades and we can't really take on poverty right now, we don't have enough money to create jobs for youth, timing's not right, we don't have the votes in Congress."

Of course, the problem with Obama so far is that he hasn't always been at his best. I've seen plenty of events where he's seemed lackluster--where he's fallen into amorphous talk of transforming politics that seems more like a substitute for concrete policy steps than a prelude to them. The test going forward, then, is whether Obama can live up to the high standards he's set for himself lately.