Not relevant to anything in particular, but it’s interesting.
Earlier on the day that Obama visited the nursery school, she addressed a congregation at the Pee Dee Union Baptist Church, in Cheraw, a hamlet of about six thousand known as “The Prettiest Town in Dixie.” The church’s makeshift gravel parking lot, next to the Pee Dee Ice and Fuel Company and bounded by train tracks, was full. After an invocation by the Reverend Jerry Corbett and an introduction by the mayor of Cheraw, Obama came to the pulpit. “You all got up bright and early just for me?” she asked the mostly elderly, almost all-black crowd. “Yes!” they roared. Obama continued, “On behalf of my church home and my pastor, Reverend Wright, I bring greetings.”
Obama opened with some reminiscing. “My people are from South Carolina,” she said. “I don’t know if y’all knew that. . . . In fact, my brother and I came down last week for a mini family reunion at my grandparents’ church, because they retired back down here, and before their death they were living here, attending an A.M.E. Baptist church in Georgetown.”
Obama was playing to her audience—later she riffed on “those relatives who have plastic on the furniture” and reminded the churchgoers to get “ten other triflin’ people in your life” out of bed and down to the polls on Saturday. Her appearances at the church, and many like it, were a key point of strategy in a state that would be the first real test of whether or not Barack could attract significant numbers of black voters. “In South Carolina in particular, because she had family from there, it made a lot of sense for her to speak in the African-American community,” David Axelrod said.
After warming up the crowd, Obama launched into her stump speech, a forty-five-minute monologue that she composed herself and delivers without notes. Obama has been open about the value of her ability to speak to black audiences in cadences that reflect their experience, but she makes clear her distaste for the notion that she is a niche tool, wielded by her husband’s campaign to woo black voters solely on the basis of their shared racial identity. “I mean, I’ve been to every early state,” she told me, when I asked her about reports that she was “deployed” in the South to reach black audiences. “I was ‘deployed’ to Iowa,” she said, making air quotes with her fingers. “I was ‘deployed’ to New Hampshire.” The four times I heard her give the speech—in a ballroom at the University of South Carolina, from the pulpit of Pee Dee Union, at an art gallery in Charleston, and in the auditorium of St. Norbert College, in De Pere, Wisconsin—its content was admirably consistent, with few of the politician’s customary tweaks and nods to the demographic predilections, or prejudices, of a particular audience.
Obama begins with a broad assessment of life in America in 2008, and life is not good: we’re a divided country, we’re a country that is “just downright mean,” we are “guided by fear,” we’re a nation of cynics, sloths, and complacents. “We have become a nation of struggling folks who are barely making it every day,” she said, as heads bobbed in the pews. “Folks are just jammed up, and it’s gotten worse over my lifetime. And, doggone it, I’m young. Forty-four!”
From these bleak generalities, Obama moves into specific complaints. Used to be, she will say, that you could count on a decent education in the neighborhood. But now there are all these charter schools and magnet schools that you have to “finagle” to get into. (Obama herself attended a magnet school, but never mind.) Health care is out of reach (“Let me tell you, don’t get sick in America”), pensions are disappearing, college is too expensive, and even if you can figure out a way to go to college you won’t be able to recoup the cost of the degree in many of the professions for which you needed it in the first place. “You’re looking at a young couple that’s just a few years out of debt,” Obama said. “See, because, we went to those good schools, and we didn’t have trust funds. I’m still waiting for Barack’s trust fund. Especially after I heard that Dick Cheney was s’posed to be a relative or something. Give us something here!”
First Ladies have traditionally gravitated toward happy topics like roadside flower beds, so it comes as a surprise that Obama’s speech is such an unrelenting downer. Obama acknowledged to me that some advisers have lobbied her to take a sunnier tone, with little success. “For me,” she said, “you can talk about policies and plans and experience and all that. We usually get bogged down in that in a Presidential campaign, over the stuff that I think doesn’t matter. . . . I mean, I guess I could go into Barack’s policies and rattle them off. But that’s what he’s for.” In Cheraw, Obama belittled the idea that the Clinton years were ones of opportunity and prosperity: “The life that I’m talking about that most people are living has gotten progressively worse since I was a little girl. . . . So if you want to pretend like there was some point over the last couple of decades when your lives were easy, I want to meet you!”
She’ll certainly be a refreshing change after Laura’s robot act.