By Benjamin Wachs
“The Oakland office” of the Barack Obama campaign, “is not Oakland,” one of the campaign field managers told me. “But the San Francisco office, it’s San Francisco.”
Part of what he meant is that the Oakland Office, the first campaign office Obama set up in California, covers most of the East Bay and points north – and has volunteers to match. While the San Francisco office, which officially opened with a small party Wednesday night, is entirely made up of San Francisco volunteers.
But beyond that, yeah, the analogy holds.
Visit the Oakland office and you’ll meet the people Obama campaigners are always talking about: the young people who felt disenfranchised or disgusted with the political process until this guy form the 2004 Democratic Convention gave them a wake-up call. You know who they are because, when they’re not working the phones or learning how to canvass, they talk about something besides politics. Family, friends, neighborhoods, sports, television (besides The Wire) … there’s a whole range of human experience out there, and the truth is they don’t have that much to say about politics. They like Obama, they think the movement is cool and all and they’re going to vote for him, but … how much can you really say about that?
But that’s Oakland. San Francisco is … well … it’s San Francisco.
As I walked down Market towards the Obama headquarters on the corner of Laguna, I caught up with a hipster talking on his cell phone. “Did you HEAR what the Clinton’s said about Reagan in the debate?” he asked his Bluetooth. “It was OUTRAGEOUS! But … no! He’s not less substantive! The Washington Post jus did a comparison of all the candidates’ stimulus plans, and Obama got the highest grade! He needs to push that!”
I figured we were going to the same place. As we walked, another hipster on a cell phone caught up with us. “No, he’s a unifier,” said the hipster to my left. “Obama is so much less divisive than Clinton. If he goes up against John McCain, he can win this for the Democrats!”
“Canvassing in Nevada was just amazing,” said the Hipster to my right. “My very first day I was out in the middle of nowhere at, like, trailer parks filled with these desperate people and there I was talking to them about Obama. It was beautiful.”
This went on all night: at the San Francisco office you’re surrounded by volunteers who think they’re analysts and activists who think they’re strategists. These are the people who applaud Obama for motivating people who are not involved in politics – even though they don’t know anyone not involved in politics personally, and would yell at them if they did for being a part of the problem.
During the speeches, Obama’s campaign staff and San Francisco D.A. Kamala Harris gave standard political rah-rah wrapped around standard San Francisco ego stroking: this is SO the movement, and you are SO part of it! Someday soon all of America will wake up and realize just how right you are!
But, interestingly, the longest and loudest applause were reserved for someone who is a genuine political neophyte: Craig Newmark, of Craig’s List, may have been there to introduce Harris, but the wild cheers that greeted his appearance drowned out everyone else. Maybe because, especially for San Franciscans who have done this song and dance so many times before, Newmark was a genuine novelty.
“I’ve said nice things about candidates before, but I’ve never ‘come out’ for one before,” Newark admitted after the event.
Tellingly, the appeal of Obama for Newmark is “the intangibles” … exactly the way it is for people in the Oakland office who have also never come out for politics before. “It’s things I find hard to articulate,” he told the crowd after they calmed down. “About unifying the country, and making it a better place.”
But when pressed, he was unapologetic about valuing those intangibles. “The intangibles mean a great deal. There are a lot of people in this country who have a good moral compass and aren’t too far apart. But you have to motivate people to get things done.”
Kamala Harris then tried to leach off of Newmark’s popularity by telling the crowd that “Craig epitomizes all that’s great about San Francisco, and all that’s great about this campaign,” but she’s only half right – and it’s because the latter cancels the former out.
Obama is, let’s face it, not the candidate that San Franciscans would vote for if they were voting their passions. San Franciscans who habitually bash the Midwest are excited about a Chicago politician; San Franciscans who think that “red states” are savage backwaters are voting for a candidate who demands that red states be treated with dignity and respect; San Franciscans who demand a strong universal health care system are voting for the candidate who offers the weakest universal health care plan of the leading Democrats. That’s why they get quiet any time Denis Kucinich is mentioned, or defensive about how John-Edwards-can’t-win-so-why-bother-bringing-him-up?
Politically jaded San Franciscans are coming out for Obama because he can do something they can’t: reach guys like Newmark … appeal to red state voters … come up with cross-over platforms. The excitement at the opening of the San Francisco office was so intense because people know that, for the first time in 30 years, San Francisco might be involved in a movement the rest of the country gives a damn about.
And yes, it’s the intangibles, stupid.