NASHUA, N.H. — Ever since his runaway victory last week in Iowa, Barack Obama has been trying to get his head around what's really happening, and how much of it is him versus the times.
"There's something stirring in the air," Obama told one of the many capacity crowds that flooded high schools and theater halls across New Hampshire over the weekend. He told another crowd, "It's not about me, it's about you," and another, "Something's going on."
Right now, the Obama phenomenon feels like a grab bag of a citizens' movement, an upbeat, youth-led, beyond-partisan, pro-regulatory, multiracial, global-citizen, antiwar freight train with the 46-year-old first-term Illinois senator at the throttle, barreling toward Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment, with the Republicans farther down the line.
The tight New Hampshire finish only heightens the drama to come. Many important big-state contests still lie ahead, and Obama has little national and foreign-policy experience. He's relatively untested on the big stage. And a central question remains: Is a call for "change" a sustainable political movement or just a smart campaign theme delivered by a well-spoken Ivy League messenger?
Young voters left Obama rallies inspired in recent days. So did people as old as their parents and grandparents, including many white men. On their way to their cars, they reminisced about JFK and Robert Kennedy, about Gene McCarthy and 1968, the tragic establishment-shaking year in which a bunch of "Clean for Gene" volunteers helped unseat President Lyndon Johnson.
"I'm a lifelong Republican; I switched for Obama," said Mark Maynard, 57, a developer. Dennis Tarpey, 50, an art shipper, called Obama "the closest I've seen to a leader since the Kennedys."
Obama feeds the comparisons, favoring skinny ties and jackets with a '60s style, delivering speeches peppered with references to the Kennedys, Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"There is a moment in the life of every generation where, if it is to make its mark on history, its spirit has to come through," he says in his stump speech. "This is our moment; this is our time. Cast aside the fear and the doubt and the cynicism."
Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker, a New Hampshire resident who's endorsed Obama, said in an interview the day before the primary that Obama's anti-Iraq war stance from the start made him comparable to McCarthy, who led a short-lived but galvanizing crusade against Johnson and the Vietnam War. But Burns said Obama's broader appeal made him a Kennedy-esque figure. Burns said that, if elected, Obama had the potential to be a Lincoln or a Franklin D. Roosevelt.
"He is the embodiment of our wish for ourselves, his ability to transcend the same-old same-old," Burns said. "He's a wonderful messenger who carries a complicated message to the rest of us of what we want to be . . . of a whole legacy of promise."
Curtis Gans, the director of the American University's Center for the Study of the American Electorate — and McCarthy's former staff director — isn't drawn to those comparisons. In 1968, Gans argued, McCarthy and Robert Kennedy did something bigger, because they crusaded against a sitting president of their own political party.
Gans also is less convinced of the historical importance of this election year or the meaning of Obama's vision.
"There is a wave or a movement building, but it isn't like 1968; '68 had a specific focus, Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam," he said. "This is a more personal focus. At this point Obama is the positive focus of particularly the young wanting something different."
Movements built on issues — war, civil rights, social conservatism — are usually more lasting than ones built around personal charisma, Gans said. "The young people see something absolutely unique. But it's too early to tell whether that gets sustained if he gets that far."
But the yearning for change can be powerful, too, as it was in 1960 when an articulate and attractive but relatively untested John F. Kennedy defeated two-term Vice President Richard Nixon and grasped the torch "for a new generation of Americans."
For many this week, however, Obama's in-the-moment appeal is enough.
Adam Pattantyus, 47, a clean-technology businessman, sees Obama as a "peer" and views the wave of support for him more as a changing of the guard than a gimmick or a reflection of voter desperation.
"I think change is in the air," Pattantyus said. "This is a confluence of events. There's Barack Obama who becomes the holder of the change, and then people connect their own hopes with what he represents."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008