At SEIU, Obama "Rocked The House"

WASHINGTON, D.C -- A charged-up Sen. Barack Obama begged politically active members of the Service Employees union to join his “movement” to reform the Democratic Party.

“The question I ask SEIU members is, not "Who is talking about your agenda?" but "Who can change politics in Washington to make that a reality,” Obama said. “Change starts by making sure a Democrat is in the White House. Change doesn’t end just because a Democrat is in the White House. It’s time to turn the page on the old way of doing business.”

In many ways, it was the longest sustained encapsulation of Obama’s complex, primary argument that a Washington, D.C. audience has heard. It was heavy on passion and sloganeering and comparatively free of the nuance that marks that Obama’s regular stump speech.

SEIU's members are temperamentally suited to Obama; he is a longtime friend of Chicago's SEIU Local 880 and worked closely with the union as an organizer and later as a state legislator.

Obama entered the ballroom to cheers, but he left to a sustained chorus of chants: “Obama!, Obama!” The SEIU president, Andy Stern, had to calm his members: ““Everybody take your seats, please. We have other candidates.”

One of them, Sen. John Edwards, is lobbying hard for the SEIU's endorsement. The SEIU members gave Edwards, who spoke several hours after Obama, an equally rapturous reception. "I intend to be the best union president in the history of the United States," he said.

Hillary Clinton was greeted politely, and applause came from the red meat lines she threw at the crowd. Significantly, there were no catcalls when Clinton talked about Iraq. Equally as significantly, the audience did not scream her name in unison when she left.

Obama has generally shrugged off the interest-group glad-handling that is generally required of Democratic presidential candidates, but the energy with which he spoke today made clear that he is eager to associate himself with the SEIU. But not solely for its political clout: he wants SEIU members to ratify his biography – they are an organizing union and he began his career as an organizer – and to ratify his argument that Hillary Clinton is too polarizing, too calculating and too change-averse to pursue transformative policies. If any union – actually, if any coherent part of the Democratic Party – is capable of being drafted into Obama’s movement, it’s the Service Employees. In this vein, the Service Employees executive committee would not dare lend its endorsement to John Edwards if the membership seemed to be supporting Obama.

Obama seems more popular with SEIU members than he does with SEIU executives, many of whom are said to favor Edwards. A senior SEIU official acknowledged that Obama "rocked the house" but noted that a larger-than-usual contingent of Illinois members attended the event, giving Obama somewhat of a home-state advantage here.

Obama’s swipes at Clinton were oblique, and it took his audience a few tries for them to understand what he was getting at. The audience didn’t quite get this: “It’s time we had a Democratic nominee who, after the primary, doesn’t choke saying the word union.”

But they got this:

“The problem is that too many people in this town see politics as a game and so if you think politics is a game then you start evaluating your candidates to see who can play the game best,” Obama said. “The question is: who can actually bring an end to the game plan. It has to be, who can put an end to the division… who can stand up to the lobbyists and the corporate interests … and [say that] American’s interests come first. “

Noting that Clinton had dropped her health care reform policy a few hours before, Obama allowed that it had some “good ideas,” but suggested the messenger – Sen. Clinton – could not be trusted to lead on the issue as president and evoked the secrecy that surrounded her failed 1994 reform attempt. “But the real key in passing universal health care is the ability to bring people together in a process that is open and transparent and builds real consensus, and I’ve got a track record of doing that.”

Obama implied that Edwards was a Johnny-come-lately.

“I’ve spent my entire adult life working with SEIU. I’m not a newcomer to this,” Obama said. “I didn’t suddenly discover SEIU on the campaign trail. Oh, y’all organize. You wear purple, do you?” he said, referring to the spirit color the SEIU has chosen.

But Edwards has spent the past four years courting the SEIU, local-by-local. SEIU officials estimated that a majority of the crowd had previously met him in person. They swarmed him as he entered and exited.