As he jets across two key states whipping up the support that could finish off Hillary Clinton this week, the Democratic frontrunner is already mapping out a government of all the talents. Our writer joins him aboard Obama One
AS Barack Obama enters the final stages of the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, he is preparing to detach the core voters of John McCain, the likely Republican nominee, with the same ruthless determination with which he has peeled off Hillary Clinton’s supporters.
The scene is set for a tussle between the two candidates for the support of some of the sharpest and most independent minds in politics. Obama is hoping to appoint cross-party figures to his cabinet such as Chuck Hagel, the Republican senator for Nebraska and an opponent of the Iraq war, and Richard Lugar, leader of the Republicans on the Senate foreign relations committee.
Senior advisers confirmed that Hagel, a highly decorated Vietnam war veteran and one of McCain’s closest friends in the Senate, was considered an ideal candidate for defence secretary. Some regard the outspoken Republican as a possible vice-presidential nominee although that might be regarded as a “stretch”.
Asked about his choice of cabinet last week, Obama told The Sunday Times: “Chuck Hagel is a great friend of mine and I respect him very much,” although he was wary of appearing as though he was already choosing the White House curtains. But after winning 11 primary contests in a row after Super Tuesday, he is ready to elbow Clinton off the stage.
Little more than a year ago the Illiniois senator, 46, used to laugh that he was called Alabama or Yo! Mama, because so few people knew his name. If he can win one or both of the Texas or Ohio primaries on Tuesday, he is expected to wrap up the Democratic nomination – and begin the next phase of the battle for the presidency against McCain.
The Sunday Times was aboard Obama One, his private campaign jet, as he crisscrossed the two key primary states. It was an exhilarating ride with a candidate on the cusp of making history and robbing Clinton, who aimed to be America’s first woman president, of a distinction she thought was hers for the taking.
Obama is cutting a dash through Texas, addressing up to 20,000 people a day, and has overtaken Clinton by two points in the polls, according to Real-ClearPolitics. In blue-collar, recession-struck Ohio, he has narrowed the gap to within five points of his rival.
From snowbound Cleveland, where the ice was scraped off the wings of the jet before it could take off, to balmy Texas, where spring has arrived, the journey took Obama from one rally to the next where huge, multiracial crowds cheered wildly and stomped to cries of: “Yes, we can.”
On the plane Obama walked the aisle, chatting to journalists with a confidence that came from knowing his mighty opponent might be on her way out of the race in 48 hours and a slight edge of nervousness that the nomination is now his to lose.
Narrow wins for Clinton in both Texas and Ohio might encourage her to fight on, although Obama’s team believes she needs a lead of more than 5% to justify continuing her campaign.
Obama is taking nothing for granted in his quest to become America’s first black president. “Remember New Hampshire!” he said, recalling the primary upset that restored Clinton’s status as the frontrunner after her initial shock defeat in Iowa.
Earlier Obama had told the audience at a suburban high school rally in Dallas, Texas, that he intended to follow the example of his hero, President Abraham Lincoln, and appoint a cabinet of the talents, irrespective of party labels.
“I think America deserves the best person for every job and so we are going to be canvassing far and wide if I am fortunate enough to be elected,” he said.
Richard Reardon, 64, a security officer and veteran, said: “I’ll be honest. Maybe 20 years ago, I’d never have voted for a black man, but after the Bushes and the Clintons, give the man a chance.”
After overtaking Clinton in the national polls, as well as the popular vote and delegate count in the Democratic primary contest, Obama is now sizing up McCain with the same cool eye for signs of weakness.
They are evenly matched in the polls, an enviable position compared with the 20-point lead Clinton held over Obama for the best part of last year. He believes he will be able to make deep inroads into the conservative vote that put George W Bush into the White House twice but might not transfer its loyalty to his successor. McCain blurted out that he was a “conservative liberal Republican” last week, a slip of the tongue that confirmed the fears of die-hard Republicans that he is not one of them.
But the Arizona senator, 71, has an advantage over Obama, a foreign policy novice, on defence and national security. Republicans intend to draw a sharp contrast between McCain, who was imprisoned in the “Hanoi Hilton” by the North Vietnamese, and Obama, who was a schoolboy on the same continent in Indonesia at the time.
Obama got a taste of McCain’s withering scorn last week when he was ridiculed for appearing to suggest in a televised debate with Clinton that Al-Qaeda was not in Iraq. “I have news for you,” McCain chided him. The terrorist group was already there and was called “Al-Qaeda in Iraq". Round one, by general consent, went to McCain.
Obama believes he will be able to neutralise McCain by drawing on the expertise of independent Republicans such as Hagel and Lugar, who is regarded by Obama as a potential secretary of state.
Larry Korb, a defence official under President Ronald Reagan who is backing Obama, said: “By putting a Republican in the Pentagon and the State Department you send a signal to Congress and the American people that issues of national security are above politics.”
Korb recalled that President John F Kennedy appointed Robert McNamara, a Republican, as defence secretary in 1961. “Hagel is not only a Republican but a military veteran who would reassure the troops that there was somebody in the Pentagon who understood their hopes, concerns and fears,” he said.
Obama intends to pour more troops and resources into defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan.
He told The Sunday Times he would expect European allies to contribute more to the fight. “You can’t have a situation where the United States and Britain are called on to do the dirty work and nobody else wants to engage in actual fire-fights with the Taliban.”
He praised Prince Harry’s “commendable” service - “I’m sure the British people are very proud of him” - and said America would have a “special, special relationship” with Britain should he win the White House. “That’s inviolable,” he said.
Europe, he added, would get something in return for an extra push in Afghanistan. “It’s important for us to send a signal that we’re going to be listening to them when it comes to policies they find objectionable, Iraq being top of the list.”
As the plane flew on to Beaumont, Texas, a southeastern town near the Louisiana border, Obama let rip about parents’ responsibility for their children, a theme that appeals to conservative voters as much as the predominantly black audience in the theatre.
He drew the noisiest whoops and cheers of the day when he admonished parents for their failings. “Turn off the TV set, put the video game away. Buy a little desk or put that child at the kitchen table. Watch them do their homework. If they don’t know how to do it, give them help. If you don’t know how to do it, call the teacher. Make them go to bed at a reasonable time. Keep them off the streets. Give them some breakfast. Come on! And since I’m on a roll, if you’re child misbehaves in school, don’t cuss out the teacher! Do something with your child!”
He then went on to attack childhood obesity. “We can’t keep feeding our children junk all day long, giving them no exercise. They’re overweight by the time they are four or five years old and then we’re surprised when they get sick ... I know some of you that get cold Popeyes [chicken] out for breakfast! I know! That’s why you are all laughing! I caught you out!”
It is impossible to imagine either Clinton or McCain addressing a crowd in this manner without sounding bossy and patronising. Obama pulled it off with humour.
Cornel West, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University, believes Obama has found the language to address problems in the black community. “You have to respect black people enough to say that sometimes we make bad choices. You have to talk about personal responsibility as well as social conditions.”
Obama was equally at home the next day at a gathering of evangelical ministers in Brownsville, southern Texas, where he talked about his introduction to Christianity as an organiser in Chicago. He opened the meeting by referring to the prophet Jermiah, who told people “in a time of uncertainty and despair” that God had plans to “prosper” them and give them “hope”.
“The calling to apply the values of faith to our society is one that has been heard throughout the ages,” he said. “I think about the evangelicals I know who may not agree with me on every issue” - he was thinking of abortion - “but know that poverty has no place in a land of plenty.”
On the economy, the closely fought battle for Ohio has led Clinton and Obama to adopt populist, protectionist policies that have alarmed America’s main trading partners, including Britain. Even so, he takes time in his speeches to praise capitalism and entrepreneurship. Peter Wehner, a former White House adviser to George W Bush, believes Obama is a “completely orthodox liberal” whom McCain will be able to defeat on the issues. However, he could pivot to the right once he is the Democratic nominee. “He should take two or three issues, such as merit pay for teachers or school choice for low-income kids,” Wehner said.
If education is to be Obama’s signature issue, he might consider appointing Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, as his czar. The billionaire media magnate last week ruled out running for president as an independent and said he would offer his support to whichever candidate took the most nonpartisan approach to America’s problems. The subtext was clear: “Hire me.”
Bill may tell Hillary to quit on Tuesday
IT is the burning question of the moment: who will have the courage to tell Hillary Clinton it is time to quit? Friends of the couple say the chances are that it will be her husband, and that he will tell her if she loses Texas or Ohio on Tuesday. He has already made it clear she cannot soldier on without a double victory.
If, however, she wins narrowly in both states but lags significantly behind in the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination, then who will tell Bill Clinton to tell Hillary the game is up?
It could be Vernon Jordan, the African-American power broker who is so loyal to the Clintons that he arranged a job for the former intern Monica Lewinsky when she was no longer welcome at the White House.
The Clintons believe they could still fight on if Hillary wins the popular vote in Texas but ends up with fewer delegates under the state’s peculiar system, which combines a primary election with caucuses. Hillary’s camp is threatening to sue the local Democratic party if this happens but it could leave her with the reputation of a petulant, sore loser.
Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton’s former White House chief of staff, said: “There comes a point where you can drag this thing on in a way that doesn’t really give you the votes you need and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.”
He regards the Clintons as “pros” who will know if the race is over. “In the end the former president and Hillary are going to understand what needs to be done. They get it.”
Clinton has been outshone by a candidate who resembles her husband more than she does. At a rally in Beaumont, Texas, Samantha Bartley, 40, said she had expected to vote for Hillary. “Because we knew him, we thought we knew her. Bill inspired me when I was young. Now I’ve got my 18-year-old, my 20-year-old and my 21-year-old all voting for the first time. Barack Obama’s charisma reminds me of Bill and makes me feel young again.”
Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for Obama, said: “The Democratic Party wants to be united and is looking forward to running against John McCain. Spending millions of dollars against each other instead of the presumptive Republican nominee is not going to help the Democrats to win the presidency.”
There was a rush of sympathy for Margaret Thatcher when she was ousted by her colleagues, even though the country did not want her back. If Clinton loses the race, Panetta believes, “It will be a tragedy for her. It’s everything she wanted and was prepared to do.
“All of us expected that with the money, the organisation and the Clinton name, she would win.
“The other lesson with the Clintons is, they always come back and that will be true for her. She could be the next Senate majority leader.”