DENVER — William Cobb was going to approve of Barack Obama’s acceptence speech.
Cobb is a working man, a union man and a proud member of the party of working men and union men: the Democrat Party of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
But Cobb, door-knocker, envelope-stuffer, rally-attender and all-around party activist, needed something he could take back to the white working-class voters of Kenosha, Wisconsin, who remain skeptical about Obama.
Before the Democratic nominee took the stage at Invesco Field, before a cheering crowd of 80,000 supporters, Cobb summed up what he thought Obama had to talk about in his acceptance speech.
“Economics. Economics. Economics,” said the 64-year-old man, who lost his job in a stockroom four years ago and has been delivering pizzas since then because, as he says, “No one was going to hire a 64-year-old man for a good-paying job.”
“The loyal Democrats will be with Obama,” said Cobb, who eshewed the t-shirts worn by most delegates attending the outdoor rally to dress in a shirt and tie for the final night of is party’s convention. “But the white guys who usually vote Democratic but who sometimes stray over to the Republicans, we don’t have them yet.”
The working-class white guys — and, to an even greater extent, working-class white women — in states such as Ohio. Pennsylvania, west Virginia and Kentucky voted in a series of late-season Democratic primaries for Obama’s challenger, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Cobb came to the Denver convention as a Clinton delegate. And, though he pinned his “Obama” badge on his shirt without complaint, he remained worried — not just by narrowing poll numbers, but by what he heard from friends and neighbors in Kenosha, an automaking town that doesn’t make many autos anymore.
Obama’s race — highlighted by the fact that he delivered his remarks on the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech — made the task tougher in some neighborhoods, Cobb admitted. So, too. did all the talk about Obama being a “celebrity.”
Needless to say, when Obama started riffing on economic themes, Cobb perked up.
“We measure the strength of our economy not by the number of billionaires we have or the profits of the Fortune 500, but by whether someone with a good idea can take a risk and start a new business, or whether the waitress who lives on tips can take a day off to look after a sick kid without losing her job – an economy that honors the dignity of work,” said the senator from Illinois.
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“That’s good,” said Cobb.
“The fundamentals we use to measure economic strength are whether we are living up to that fundamental promise that has made this country great – a promise that is the only reason I am standing here tonight,” continued Obama. “Because in the faces of those young veterans who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, I see my grandfather, who signed up after Pearl Harbor, marched in Patton’s Army, and was rewarded by a grateful nation with the chance to go to college on the GI Bill.”
“I like that,” said Cobb.
“In the face of that young student who sleeps just three hours before working the night shift, I think about my mom, who raised my sister and me on her own while she worked and earned her degree; who once turned to food stamps but was still able to send us to the best schools in the country with the help of student loans and scholarships,” Obama said, carrying the theme forward.
When I listen to another worker tell me that his factory has shut down, I remember all those men and women on the South Side of Chicago who I stood by and fought for two decades ago after the local steel plant closed. And when I hear a woman talk about the difficulties of starting her own business, I think about my grandmother, who worked her way up from the secretarial pool to middle-management, despite years of being passed over for promotions because she was a woman. She’s the one who taught me about hard work. She’s the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life. She poured everything she had into me. And although she can no longer travel, I know that she’s watching tonight, and that tonight is her night as well.
“I don’t know what kind of lives John McCain thinks that celebrities lead, but this has been mine,” said Obama, striking the blow at the Republican nominee that red-meat Democrats were listening for. “These are my heroes. Theirs are the stories that shaped me. And it is on their behalf that I intend to win this election and keep our promise alive as President of the United States.”
Cobb is on his feet now, waving a blue “Change” sign.
This is not Obama the standoffish intellectual — and certainly not the elite “celebrity.”
This is Obama the smart populist, giving a delegate who came to the Democratic National Convention pledged to Hillary Clinton something to take home to the taverns, church basements and union halls of his increasingly post-industrial hometown.
Obama recounts the economic bad news — “more Americans are out of work and more are working harder for less” — and then says:
These challenges are not all of government’s making. But the failure to respond is a direct result of a broken politics in Washington and the failed policies of George W. Bush.
America, we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this.
This country is more decent than one where a woman in Ohio, on the brink of retirement, finds herself one illness away from disaster after a lifetime of hard work.
This country is more generous than one where a man in Indiana has to pack up the equipment he’s worked on for twenty years and watch it shipped off to China, and then chokes up as he explains how he felt like a failure when he went home to tell his family the news.
We are more compassionate than a government that lets veterans sleep on our streets and families slide into poverty; that sits on its hands while a major American city drowns before our eyes.
Tonight, I say to the American people, to Democrats and Republicans and Independents across this great land – enough!
Cobb is on his feet, pumping his fist in the air.
“Yes,” he says, “that’s what the country wants to hear.”
“It’s not that John McCain doesn’t care. It’s that John McCain doesn’t get it,” shouted Obama.
“That’s it,” says Cobb.
But what Bill Cobb really likes is when Obama gets specific.
“So let me spell out exactly what that change would mean if I am President,” says the senator, as he begins to outline a new “New Deal” — or, at the least, a fair “Fair Deal” — that turns the wheels of government to the tasks of providing “affordable, accessible health care for every single American,” guaranteeing “paid sick days and better family leave,” “equal pay for equal work,” ending “our dependence on oil from the Middle East” and ending the practice of “giving tax breaks to corporations that ship jobs overseas” and “giving them to companies that create good jobs right here in America.”
“America, now is not the time for small plans,” declared Obama.
And Bill Cobb nodded.
“That sounds a little like Kennedy,” he says, smiling. “I think the white guys will go for that.”