You know you're at a Barack Obama rally when there is a student in the front waving a "Liberals Are Sexy" sign.
A couple thousand people are packed in the University of New Hampshire field house, tingling with anticipation over Obama's imminent arrival. There is a stirring in front, and everyone in the place jumps to his feet, only to sit down again when it turns out only to be Obama's student introducers. When he finally comes out, there is a long, raucous welcome that almost seems to justify the lyrics of the Foo Fighters song blasting from the loudspeakers, "It's times like these you learn to live again."
The question for Obama is whether he can live up to the excitement around his candidacy and forge it into something solid. Tonight's performance — where the Illinois senator, at the end of his announcement tour, might have been tired — suggests the answer is "no."
He dodges a question about North Korea, and "ums" and "uhs" sprinkle his talk. Eventually, a kid gets up in the back and asks for "concrete examples of actions you're going to take." There's a smattering of applause for the pointed question.
Obama is smart enough to be able to talk intelligently about nearly anything, but it usually feels like he's a glib amateur. He has a troubled relationship to policy plans, which risks making his campaign of hope against cynicism seem merely hackneyed verbiage. It's hardly a new idea to attack the political process as too small-minded, money-grubbing and negative. In fact, it's commonplace.
Obama insists that he doesn't need more policy because he's written two books. But only if Obama were running on "finding himself" would his (beautiful) memoir of his early life, "Dreams From My Father," be a detailed manifesto. His new book, "The Audacity of Hope," has policy in it, but it's scattershot thoughts about addressing all of the nation's problems, not detailed plans.
It would be a simple thing for Obama to give a few policy speeches, but he seems to consider that beneath his inspirational style of leadership. "JFK said, 'Let's go to the moon,'" without knowing specifically how to get there, Obama explains to the crowd.
Ultimately, Obama offers himself — his reasonable and optimistic tone and his biography — as the salve for American politics. A critic will see here a characteristic self-involvement. In "Dreams," a college friend tells him, "You always think everything's about you." In "Audacity," his wife similarly admonishes him, "You only think about yourself." And now his presidential campaign is all about him.
The unusual thing about the biographical basis of Obama's candidacy is how much of what makes it so compelling happened before about age 10 and was none of his doing. If his mother hadn't married a Kenyan and then an Indonesian man, if his background weren't so intriguing, he'd probably be just another ambitious senator.
A sympathetic questioner here asks what qualifies him to be president. Obama ticks off everything he's done since college, including his work as a community organizer in Chicago. This is faintly ridiculous, but the thrust of Obama's campaign can indeed be traced to Chicago. There he was dealing with desperate people genuinely in need of a glimmer of hope. He seems to think that America is the South Side of Chicago writ large, just as hope-deprived. Obama has taken a sermon he heard 20 years ago in Chicago on the "audacity of hope" and made it the theme of a presidential campaign.
Obama has strengths — he's winsome, a fresh face and has always been against the Iraq War. In his parting remark here, Obama says, "My rival in this race is not other candidates, it's cynicism." But cynicism is not on the ballot. Other, formidable candidates are, whom Obama will not vanquish merely by the audaciousness of his audacity or the hopefulness of his hope.