'America's story' visible in Obama

DENVER -- Michelle Obama launched the Democratic National Convention Monday with an impassioned testimonial to her husband's "improbable journey," describing it as the product of struggles (abandoned by his father at 2) and values (work, family, ...

DENVER -- Michelle Obama launched the Democratic National Convention Monday with an impassioned testimonial to her husband's "improbable journey," describing it as the product of struggles (abandoned by his father at 2) and values (work, family, education) shared by millions of other Americans.

"He was raised by grandparents who were working-class folks just like my parents, and by a single mother who struggled to pay the bills just like we did. Like my family, they scrimped and saved so that he could have opportunities they never had themselves," she said in remarks preceded by a long video featuring family members and personal anecdotes about both Obamas, their courtship and their marriage. "And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you're going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don't know them, and even if you don't agree with them."

Monday's speeches by Michelle Obama, her older brother Craig, Edward and Caroline Kennedy, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others were part of the party's effort this week to not only introduce Obama to those who still know little about him but raise the "comfort level" of voters, especially older ones, with a youthful African-American politician who shatters the presidential mold.

In the midst of Republican efforts to portray Obama as elitist, untested and politically elusive, Michelle Obama said Tuesday that "each of us ... comes here also by way of our own improbable journey," and she drew a thread between her husband's history, with its more exotic bullet points -- his "funny name," his childhood in Hawaii -- and the "improbable journeys" of average Americans.

"Barack Obama's story is America's story," another speaker, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, said Monday.


"After all that's happened these past 19 months, the Barack Obama I know today is the same man I fell in love with 19 years ago," Michelle Obama said. "He's the same man who drove me and our new baby daughter home from the hospital 10 years ago this summer, inching along at a snail's pace, peering anxiously at us in the rearview mirror, feeling the whole weight of her future in his hands, determined to give her everything he'd struggled so hard for himself, determined to give her what he never had: the affirming embrace of a father's love."

She continued: "And as I tuck that little girl and her little sister into bed at night, I think about how one day, they'll have families of their own. And one day, they -- and your sons and daughters -- will tell their own children about what we did together in this election. They'll tell them how this time, we listened to our hopes, instead of our fears. How this time, we decided to stop doubting and to start dreaming.

How this time, in this great country -- where a girl from the south side of Chicago can go to college and law school, and the son of a single mother from Hawaii can go all the way to the White House -- we committed ourselves to building the world as it should be."

After Michelle Obama's speech, she was joined on stage by her two daughters, and her husband, campaigning in Missouri, appeared on the huge screen behind her, congratulating her on her speech. "How about Michelle Obama?" he told the convention crowd. "Now you know why I asked her out so many times ... You want a persistent president."

The Democratic convention is unfolding this week in a region of the country (the mountain West) where the party has high ambitions of turning the map from red to blue, but at a moment when tightening polls have made many in the party nervous.

The Obama campaign is seeking to reassure them that Denver will mark a tough new effort to portray Republican John McCain as "more of the same" after eight years of George W. Bush, to counter GOP efforts to define Obama as out of the mainstream and to tell Obama's personal story in a way that connects with the kinds of voters (older, less educated) that he has sometimes struggled to win over.

With the new addition of running mate Joe Biden of Delaware, an old foreign policy hand with decades in Washington, the campaign wants to leave Americans reassured about Obama's capacity to lead and defend the nation and more familiar with his life, character and values.

Talking to battleground-state reporters after a campaign briefing Monday. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said that "people just need to understand ... what's going to animate him, why he is going to run through that wall for the middle class in this country, because he has a keen understanding of what they're going through."


In an interview the day before the convention began, one of Obama's political mentors, native Milwaukeean and former federal judge and Chicago congressman Abner Mikva, said Obama's personal political challenges included being so new to the national scene and having a cool and thoughtful style that doesn't generate the sort of snappy answers that make for good sound bites.

"I think he has to overcome that. He has to persuade the American public he can be thoughtful and can still be one of them, and he can do that, because his roots are legitimate, as are Michelle's," Mikva said, referring to their modest backgrounds.

But Mikva also said in the interview that Obama, a Harvard law graduate, "has got to talk more 'working stiff' and less 'Harvard.'"

"I still think Barack Obama can win comfortably ... especially if he makes the connection that should have been easier than it was, but is still eluding him, which is the working stiffs," Mikva said.

Obama's Illinois Senate colleague and campaign adviser Dick Durbin made a related point over breakfast with reporters Monday. Durbin contended that GOP efforts to portray Obama as an elitist had been "destroyed" by McCain's recent inability to recall how many homes his family owned, an incident Democrats continued to flog relentlessly and gleefully here at the convention.

Others who addressed the convention Monday included Chicago congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., who said that before Obama entered the Senate, the party establishment in Illinois didn't know what to make of a guy with "father from Kenya, mother from Kansas and a funny name."

But Jackson said Obama won the support of Illinois voters of all backgrounds, and "Illinois is America."

Carroll University professor Lilly Goren, who has written about the role of race and gender in this campaign, said in an interview before the convention that the biracial Obama, who also spent part of his boyhood in Indonesia, "needs to explain that his story, while seemingly different, is really in fact very common ... his father was an immigrant, his mother was a single mom, he was raised by grandparents, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps ... he has a wife, he has two children ... he's the American success story."


That was the theme of the night for Democrats on Monday.

-- Copyright © 2008, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/Distributed by McClatchy-

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