It’s the morning after the vice presidential debate, and Barack Obama strides onto the football field at Abington Senior High School in suburban Philadelphia as Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” rings out over the loudspeakers. The bleachers on both sides of the field are packed with cheering students and their parents, and the crowd has spread out onto the lawns beyond the goal posts. Abington is one of the swing districts where the presidential race will be decided on November 4th. It’s overwhelmingly white and solidly middle-class, and it just barely favored Hillary Clinton over Obama in the primaries. It’s a place that Obama needs to win this time around if he wants to take Pennsylvania, and he knows it: He plans to return to Philadelphia in a week for more campaigning.
No matter what you think of Obama, it’s impossible not to recognize that he represents a historic turning point in American politics – and that the momentum of the race has tilted sharply in his favor in recent weeks. Part of the shift, of course, is due to the catastrophic meltdown on Wall Street. Part of it is due to the equally impressive meltdown of John McCain: his erratic and reckless mishandling of the crisis, his desperate unleashing of the same kind of smear campaign he has long condemned. But most of the credit goes to Obama himself, to his sure-footedness as a candidate and a leader. As we wrote in our endorsement of him seven months ago, “Obama has emerged by displaying precisely the kind of character and judgment we need in a president: renouncing the politics of fear, speaking frankly on the most pressing issues facing the country and sticking to his principles.”
Speaking to the crowd in Abington, Obama drives those principles home with a sense of outrage. “The financial crisis,” he declares, “is a direct result of the greed and irresponsibility that has dominated Washington and Wall Street for years.” It is an economic philosophy, he adds, that John McCain has staunchly supported during his 26 years in Congress – —opposing common-sense regulation, insisting that “the market is king” and backing massive tax breaks for the wealthy. “He hasn’t been getting tough on CEOs!” Obama shouts, departing from his stump speech. “He hasn’t been getting tough on Wall Street! Suddenly a crisis comes and the polls change and he’s out there talkin’ like Jesse Jackson. Come on!”
Americans may not be taking to the streets over the financial crisis, but they are taking to the streets for Obama. After he finishes his speech and his motorcade leaves the football field, lights flashing, people spill out onto the sidewalks for miles to catch a glimpse of him as he passes. There are salesmen cheering in front of a Ford dealership, workers in blue uniforms waving outside a sewage-supply company, secretaries holding signs, parents holding children. At an elementary school, teachers have gathered a hundred students on the lawn, row after row of five- and six-year-olds, squirming impatiently, hands clasped in their laps. Unable to resist, Obama halts the motorcade and walks over to say hello. The kids go nuts –— screaming and running in circles and literally bumping into one another – as Obama flashes a wide smile, surrounded by a sea of tiny hands.
Later, sitting in the front section of his chartered campaign plane, Obama looks weary. “I’m beat,” he says. He is on his way home to Chicago, to celebrate his 16th wedding anniversary with Michelle. During the flight, he takes a half-hour to speak with Rolling Stone about the final days of this historic race –— and what is at stake for America.
It’s January 20th. You take office. Look at what you’re confronting: the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, the climate heating up faster than anyone imagined, dangerous nuclear instability around the world…
Two wars. Yeah, we got some problems.
Do you still want the job?
I tell you what – now is the time, I think, to want the job. Because this is going to be a transitional moment for the United States. We have these moments periodically. Obviously, I wish that the Bush administration had not run things into the ground so bad, but no matter what, we would have had some big decisions to make. We have a big decision to make about our energy. We have a big decision to make about health care. We have a big decision to make about how do we revamp our education system to compete in a global economy. We have a big decision to make about our foreign policy and how we deal with transnational threats like terrorism, climate change – eventually pandemic, refugee flows, genocide.
So how do you prioritize with so many explosive crises occurring all at once?
No matter what, there’s going to be the need for a paradigm shift. The problem is that Bush has left us with very few resources to deal with these issues, and the economy’s in a weakened state. But I decided to run this time —– which was relatively early in comparison to some other presidents, or other candidates – precisely because I thought the skills I have might be important at this time. So I welcome the challenge, and I think America can rise to it.