Clinton rode the passion of the crowd and delivered an energetic battle cry. And in many elections that sort of speech, delivered around the country, would clinch the nomination.
But this is a country in the midst of a crisis of authority, a country that has become disillusioned not only with one president, but with a whole system of politics. It’s a country that has lost faith not only with one institution, but with the entire set of leadership institutions. The cultural context, in other words, allowed for a much broader critique, a much more audacious vocabulary.
And Barack Obama leapt right in.
He spoke after 11 p.m. The crowd had been sitting for four hours. In the previous months, Obama had been criticized for being bland on the stump. But this night, he unleashed a zealous part of himself that has propelled his candidacy ever since.
His first big subject was belief itself. Instead of waging a partisan campaign as Clinton had just done, he vowed to address “not just Democrats, but Republicans and independents who’ve lost trust in their government but want to believe again.”
Then he made a broader attack on the political class, and without mentioning her, threw Clinton in with the decrepit old order. “The same old Washington textbook campaigns just won’t do,” he said, in a now familiar line. He said it was time to “finally tackle problems that George Bush made far worse but that had festered long before George Bush ever took office ”” the problems that we’ve talked about year after year after year.”
Obama sketched out a different theory of social change than the one Clinton had implied earlier in the evening. Instead of relying on a president who fights for those who feel invisible, Obama, in the climactic passage of his speech, described how change bubbles from the bottom-up: “And because that somebody stood up, a few more stood up. And then a few thousand stood up. And then a few million stood up. And standing up, with courage and clear purpose, they somehow managed to change the world!”