Obama Has Hurdles To Clear At Convention

This week's Democratic National Convention presents a series of hurdles for the prospective nominee, Barack Obama. Andrea Seabrook, who'll be hosting NPR's coverage of the conventions, talks with Jacki Lyden about what Obama has to accomplish at the conventions.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

The lights are up, the banners are flying, and Democrats are streaming into Denver ahead of the party's national convention.

Tomorrow night, that stream crests at the Pepsi Center, where revelers start a four-day extravaganza of speeches, parties and, of course, the official nominations of Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

There are things Barack Obama has to accomplish this week, and let's hear what they are from our own Andrea Seabrook. She's be on convention duty for the next few weeks, hosting NPR's coverage of both conventions, and you're here to break down what hurdles Barack Obama has to clear over the next few days. Welcome back, Andrea.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Thanks, great to be here.

LYDEN: So you spent the last several days rounding up opinions about what the Democrats need to do this week. Who did you hear from?

SEABROOK: Well, first we heard from real people, Jacki, people who might actually vote in this coming election. We went down to the National Mall, where it is full-on tourist season here in Washington, D.C., and we asked people from all over the country: What must Obama do in Denver this week?

Unidentified Woman #1: He's got to figure out how to appeal to that broader center of the country.

Unidentified Woman #2: I think there's so many Hillary constituents out there that if you don't bring her in, they're going to go to McCain.

Unidentified Woman #3: They already have my vote. It's already a done deal, I think.

Unidentified Woman #4: He wouldn't change my mind. I just don't think he's got enough experience, in my honest opinion.

Unidentified Man #1: He's at the home stretch now, so I'm not so sure that he can do anything else.

Unidentified Man #2: I realize he's got to try to draw the broadest possible electorate, but he's got to stick with his issues, and he's got to stick to his guns.

SEABROOK: Jacki, that was Dan Stearns(ph), Andrew Lyles(ph) and Bobby Moffett(ph), all of Washington, D.C., also Kim Montis(ph) of St. Petersburg, Florida and Susan Gaunt of Chicago, and the great thing is, hearing from these people, Jacki, is that they were dead on.

I mean, I also spoke with analysts. I spoke with members of Congress. I spoke with scholars, academics, and they told me pretty much the same thing.

LYDEN: Well, what concerns are at the top of the list?

SEABROOK: The top of the list, everyone I spoke with said that Barack Obama has a job to do here in simply introducing himself to the American people: who he is, basic biographical information.

I spoke with Tom Schaller about this. He's a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a well-known columnist and blogger for salon.com.

Professor TOM SCHALLER (Political Science, University of Maryland, Baltimore County): Like every other nominee of either party, Barack Obama needs to introduce himself, but I think the hurdle's a little higher for him for a variety of quite obvious reasons, including the fact that he's the first non-white major-party candidate, and he has an interesting name, and he has a background that is not traditionally American in the way people perceive it, and yet it's actually, and perhaps ironically, a very traditional American story.

I think the other hurdle, and it may be as big of a hurdle, is that Obama has to talk about you. He has to talk about the voters, in part because a lot of the discussion so far about him and a lot of the discussion so far by him seems to be a bit Obama-centric, and this is a theme that the McCain people and the Republicans are pushing, that it's all about him, and he's a celebrity, and he's a rock star, and the campaign is about how he's a transcendent and transformative figure.

You know, that does pump up some people, but the kinds of people that are pumped up about the transformative aspects of Barack Obama are people who are already sort of voting for Barack Obama, and the people who are looking for a little bit more meat on the bone, they're looking for a little bit more substance, want to hear what you are going to do for me, not what you think your importance is in the role of the Democratic Party or the role of presidential history.

SEABROOK: Tell me about the speech Thursday night, the big acceptance speech. What does he have to do there?

Prof. SCHALLER: Obama is well-known, and rightly so, for having soaring rhetoric, but I think he really needs to, at INVESCO Field, reach for the stars by bringing himself back down to earth to a certain degree by putting some policy substance to his very broad, visionary ideas.

You know, people thought in 2000 that Al Gore's speech was too long, and he tried to touch too many bases, and there were too many policy components, and in that speech and that convention, Al Gore got a huge bump out of that and a bigger bump than Bush got out of his convention in 2000, and it sort of proves the point that sort of rank-and-file, everyday voters, they want the details. They like the sizzle, but they want the steak.

LYDEN: So the barbecues in Denver are fired up, but Andrea, so are some of the Hillary Clinton diehards, I hear. Nearly half of the delegates to this convention were selected to support her during what was a very bitter primary season, and some of them are reportedly still holding out on Obama, or is that just an insider phenomenon?

SEABROOK: Well, Jacki, that is exactly one of the big questions here, and it's unclear how big this problem is at this point. On the one hand, you have John McCain putting out a new ad today criticizing Obama for, quote-unquote, passing over Hillary Clinton and sort of trying to obviously drive a wedge between different groups of Democrats.

On the other hand, there's a new ABC-Washington Post poll out today showing Obama has a 20-point lead among women. So it's unclear whether this is a huge problem or not. But I did speak with several people about this, including Harold Ickes. He was one of the architects of Hillary Clinton's campaign, a long-time Clinton family friend and colleague, and he says there's no doubt the Clinton factor will be a challenge for Obama in Denver.

Mr. HAROLD ICKES (Former Campaign Worker, Clinton Campaign): I don't think that any of us knew how deep these feelings ran. I don't think Hillary understood, really, until she started talking to people. I don't think Senator Obama understood until he started talking to some of these people, and I think that this was sort of a learning experience, and I think that both Mrs. Clinton and Senator Obama came to understand that there was profound unhappiness out there and that something had to be done to try to bridge the gap.

SEABROOK: What does Obama have to do to win those voters, to finally convince them to come to his side? Is there something he can do at the convention or that the convention can do to put a salve on those wounds?

Mr. ICKES: No, I think this is time, and the olive branch that he has extended by having her name submitted formally for consideration I think goes a long way. I'm sure that he will say flattering things about her, as he should. She's going to be, I think, very supportive of him, but this is a process.

You don't do this just like snap your fingers, and some people feel still very strongly about it, but there is a lot at stake, and when people start focusing - they haven't focused on the general election. When they start focusing on the general election, I think people will start shifting.

LYDEN: Well obviously, Barack Obama's opponent, John McCain, is hoping or trying to capitalize on any rift. Aren't the Democrats also trying to capitalize on McCain's ties to the White House?

SEABROOK: Sure, absolutely, and you know, you saw a lot of that this week, particularly yesterday with the official announcement of Joe Biden as the vice-presidential pick and then his speech. Well, just listen to these excerpts of Joe Biden's speech in Springfield, Illinois yesterday.

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware; Vice Presidential Candidate): We don't have to have four more years of George W. Bush and John McCain…

And these are John's words: The most important issues of our day, I've been totally in agreement and support of President Bush…

(Soundbite of booing)

Sen. BIDEN: And again these are John's words: No one has supported President Bush in Iraq more than I have, end of quote…

(Soundbite of booing)

Sen. BIDEN: You can't change America when you know your first four years as president will look exactly like the last eight years of George Bush's presidency.

(Soundbite of applause)

SEABROOK: What you just heard, Jacki, is the first glimmer of how this campaign will likely work for the next several months, and that is good cop, bad cop - Joe Biden coming in as the vice-presidential pick and also attack dog, especially on this weakness of John McCain has of being close to President Bush, at least in many people's eyes.

This is exactly what the convention will do in terms of John McCain. It's a Democratic convention, but part of the job is painting, tarring John McCain with the George W. Bush brush.

LYDEN: Senator Biden certainly didn't waste any time, did he?

SEABROOK: No he didn't, and that is a glimmer of what you'll be seeing for the next several months. This is good cop, bad cop. You've got Barack Obama with his message of hope and now his vice-presidential pick with his message that John McCain is just a continuation of George W. Bush's policies.

That is a major - also a major theme that will be in the convention this week, Jacki. I spoke with Rahm Emanuel this week. He's in the Democratic leadership at the House of Representatives, and just listen to how many times he says George Bush in the same sentence as he's talking about John McCain.

Representative RAHM EMANUEL (Democrat, Illinois): Principle number one, he fits like a glove to George Bush. No change, not a T or an I, a period or a comma. He has said that repeatedly on the economic front, and he said it on the foreign-policy front, and in fact on all of those, he'd go farther in the direction than George Bush. John McCain is basically lip-synching George Bush's agenda and believes that that's been right for the country.

SEABROOK: Will your speech focus on John McCain?

Rep. EMANUEL: Yes, but not just John McCain. It's John McCain and George Bush and what they want.

SEABROOK: Isn't there some danger here? Obama himself touts this new kind of politics, the kinder, gentler…

Rep. EMANUEL: Andrea, I'm not going to - I'm not buying into your presumption. There is nothing dangerous by stating the facts.

SEABROOK: Let me put it this way. Don't the Democrats open themselves to attack by going negative, by emphasizing downsides during the Democratic Convention at a time - let me finish the question - at a time when Obama is touting a new, kinder, gentler politics and unity?

Rep. EMANUEL: (Unintelligible), right, but here's the thing. Stating the facts so people understand whose policies created these conditions is not negative, it's just stating the facts. Barack and other Democrats, and including myself, will lay out the case also what we would do different.

SEABROOK: So that's a little preview of how the convention will talk about John McCain.

LYDEN: So Andrea, to recap?

SEABROOK: Barack Obama has to introduce himself, he must bring the Hillary people into his camp, and the convention must work hard to paint McCain as an extension of George W. Bush, the three main themes. One last thing? Thursday night, the acceptance speech, Barack Obama is known for giving great speeches. This one has to be exceptional.

LYDEN: Well, we look forward to hearing your coverage this week, and we thank you very much for being with us today.

SEABROOK: Great to be here, Jacki, thanks.

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