August 22, 2008 -- CHESTER, Va. -- Barack Obama, whose oratory and opposition to the war in Iraq helped propel him to the Democratic presidential nomination, said Thursday he's preparing for an election that he believes will turn on the economy.
In an interview here with USA TODAY, Obama spoke about his multiracial background, the meteoric journey that will take him to Denver to accept his party's presidential nomination next Thursday night and the potential obstacles that follow. The interview took place during a three-day campaign swing that took him through traditionally Republican communities of the rural south.
While Obama said he had settled on a running mate, he would not offer a name or even say whether he had yet informed his choice.Voters' economic anxieties played a role in his decision. Obama said he sought someone who "will be a partner with me in strengthening this economy for the middle class and working families."In addition to being a partner, his running mate will be a sparring partner, he said. "I want somebody who's independent, somebody who can push against my preconceived notions and challenge me," he said.
The Democratic ticket will appear together Saturday in Springfield, the state capital of Illinois. Obama began his political career there as a state senator and launched his presidential campaign there in February 2007.
Though polls indicate voters prefer Democratic policies on a wide range of domestic and foreign issues, Obama is not surprised that the race remains close between him and presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.
"The American people are still checking me out, because I am relatively new," Obama said. The closeness of the race "shouldn't be a surprise to anybody" given voters' greater familiarity with his GOP opponent, Obama said. "John McCain has been in the public eye for 25 years."
His opponent may have an edge on him during their three debates this fall, Obama said. He described McCain as "a very effective debater," and said he admired how "disciplined and concise" his Republican rival was when the two candidates made back-to-back appearances last week at evangelist Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California. "I would say I'm going to have my work cut out for me," Obama said.
One of the sharpest areas of disagreement between the two men has been Iraq policy. Obama said Thursday's reports of a potential deal by the Bush administration to pull U.S. combat troops out of Iraq show that he, and not McCain, has been right about the conflict there.
"It's more or less the same time frame I announced two years ago," Obama said. The senator has been advocating a phased withdrawal that would bring combat troops out of Iraq by 2010. McCain says the timing of a pullout must be determined by conditions on the ground.
Lowering speech expectations
Obama said he's not sure the address he will deliver to the Democratic National Convention as the presidential nominee can top the impact of the speech he made to the same gathering four years ago as a virtually unknown Illinois state legislator.
Delivering a keynote address on the second night of the convention, Obama, then a candidate for the U.S. Senate, electrified delegates with a speech that used his biracial background as a metaphor for the divides that he said Americans must bridge. "The element of surprise made that particular speech special," Obama said.This year, he said, he wants to "tell my story again" with an emphasis on his middle-class roots.
Mocked as an elitist in McCain campaign ads that compare his star power to that of tabloid divas Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, Obama said he will remind voters of how he worked his way through college and rejected positions with major law firms to take a position as a community organizer in the distressed steel mill neighborhoods along Chicago's South Side. He told an audience here that he made $13,000 a year.
Despite the decision by his campaign team to move his Thursday acceptance speech out of the convention hall and into a football stadium that seats upwards of 70,000, Obama said his address "is not going to dazzle like the speech I made four years ago."
Obama wants voters to focus on "the fundamental choice we have to make" between his economic policies and those of his Republican rival, John McCain, he said. "I'm much more interested in laying out that choice clearly than I am in a bunch of high-flying rhetoric," he said.
How race factors in
Obama, the first African-American presidential candidate ever nominated by a major political party, has discussed the historic nature of his candidacy only reluctantly during the campaign.But he said he won't mind doing so when he accepts the nomination Thursday on the 45th anniversary of the famous "I Have a Dream" speech in which the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King outlined his hopes for a colorblind society.It will be an occasion for "taking pride in how much this country has transformed itself in my lifetime," Obama said. "It's a remarkable thing, perhaps unequaled in modern history. I don't think we have to shy away from the significance of that."Obama, whose father was black and whose mother was white, said his historic role is both an advantage and a disadvantage. "Will there be a handful of folks around the country who don't vote for me because of my race? Sure. Will there some who vote for me because of my race? Sure."He doesn't think race will determine who wins the election, however. Obama is convinced most voters will make their choice on "much more hardheaded calculations" about national and economic security.
Obama insists his tax plan will provide greater benefits for the middle class. It will reduce taxes for Americans with incomes under $150,000 a year. Those making $250,000 or more "may see a modest hike," he said. "Folks like myself who are making a lot of money" should be willing to pony up, Obama argued, to "ensure we're not leaving a mountain of debt to the next generation."If voters "decide I'm going to be good for their pocketbook and good for their safety, I'm going to win," he said. "And if they decide John McCain is going to do better at those things, he's going to win."
Final stretch is no picnic
Going into the fall, Obama is adjusting his campaign. "There's no doubt that the enthusiasm and grass-roots energy we built carries with it its own dangers," he said.His appearances in football stadiums and basketball arenas make for "a less intimate conversation," and are "easy to caricature, as the McCain campaign has done," Obama said.To dispel the impression that his campaign "is somehow a rock concert," he said he's seeking smaller forums where he can discuss issues with voters. "We're cutting through all the sizzle and getting to the steak," Obama said.
In Chester, he spoke to 250 voters at picnic tables in a sun-dappled pine grove.
During a nearly 90-minute conversation that touched on matters ranging from health care to education, from tax policy to Iraq, Obama told the group that his foreign policy advisers will include two prominent Republicans, Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Richard Lugar of Indiana."This is nice," Obama said of the laid-back setting. "Who brought the potato salad?"