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Obama at the Top

By Daniel Henninger

Hillary Clinton probably didn't watch the stem-winder speech that Barack Obama delivered Tuesday night after cleaning her clock in the Potomac primaries. If not, she should.

It was tiresome.

The speech was classic Obama. Beautifully written and beautifully delivered, the words soaring to the rafters of a Madison, Wis., auditorium filled mostly with 17,000 cheering students. The rookie senator had just come off blowouts of Hillary in Virginia and Maryland.

The senator's charisma and appeal has been undeniable. He is almost insanely eloquent. Still, about halfway into this (very long) speech, the feeling was hard to shake: This is getting hard to listen to. Again and again.

Is Sen. Obama peaking? Probably not. The across-the-board growth in his Potomac numbers was impressive. The more appropriate question would be, is the Obama wave cresting?

Barack Obama has ridden these primaries like a skilled surfer, catching big emotional waves and riding them spectacularly, letting this new force carry him forward. Even the biggest waves, however, eventually break on the shore.

The conventional critique of Sen. Obama has held that his pitch is perfect but at some point he'll need to make the appeal more concrete.

I think the potential vulnerability runs deeper. Strip away the new coat of paint from the Obama message and what you find is not only familiar. It's a downer.

Up to now, the force of Sen. Obama's physical presentation has so dazzled audiences that it has been hard to focus on precisely what he is saying. "Yes, we can! Yes, we can!" Can what?

Listen closely to that Tuesday night Wisconsin speech. Unhinge yourself from the mesmerizing voice. What one hears is a message that is largely negative, illustrated with anecdotes of unremitting bleakness. Heavy with class warfare, it is a speech that could have been delivered by a Democrat in 1968, or even 1928.

Here is the edited version, stripped of the flying surfboard:

"Our road will not be easy . . . the cynics. . . where lobbyists write check after check and Exxon turns record profits . . . That's what happens when lobbyists set the agenda. . . It's a game where trade deals like Nafta ship jobs overseas and force parents to compete with their teenagers to work for minimum wage at Wal-Mart . . . It's a game . . . CEO bonuses . . . while another mother goes without health care for her sick child . . . We can't keep driving a wider and wider gap between the few who are rich and the rest who struggle to keep pace . . . even if they're not rich . . ."

Here's his America: "lies awake at night wondering how he's going to pay the bills . . . she works the night shift after a full day of college and still can't afford health care for a sister who's ill . . . the senior I met who lost his pension when the company he gave his life to went bankrupt . . . the teacher who works at Dunkin' Donuts after school just to make ends meet . . . I was not born into money or status . . . I've fought to bring jobs to the jobless in the shadow of a shuttered steel plant . . . to make sure people weren't denied their rights because of what they looked like or where they came from . . . Now we carry our message to farms and factories."

It ends: "We can cast off our doubts and fears and cynicism because our dream will not be deferred; our future will not be denied; and our time for change has come."

I am not saying all of this is false. But it is a depressing message to ride all the way to the White House.

Presumably this is a preview of what he intends to run with against John McCain, who was mentioned several times. (Straw in the wind: This audience cheered when he called Sen. McCain an American hero.) Presidential elections now are settled by about 30% of the electorate that occupies the independent center. In late December, Gallup released a poll in which 84% of respondents said they were satisfied with their own lives. At some point in the next 10 months, people will have to square Sen. Obama's Grapes of Wrath message with the reality of their lives.

Unease about the economy is real, but Sen. Obama is selling more than that. He is selling deep grievance over the structure of American society. That's the same message as John Edwards, or Dennis Kucinich for that matter. Hillary Clinton's mistake may have been to think this is 2008, not 1938, with the solution lying in leveraging votes in a Democratic Congress. Instead of Hillary's wonkish geniuses, Barack is selling the revolution -- change "from the bottom up."

Right after the Wisconsin speech, TV broadcast another -- by victorious John McCain. The contrast with Sen. Obama's is stark. The arc of the McCain speech is upward, positive. Pointedly, he says we are not history's "victims." Barack relentlessly pushes victimology.

For Sen. Obama the military and national security is a world of catastrophe welded to Iraq and filled with maimed soldiers. Mr. McCain locates these same difficult subjects inside the whole of American military achievement. It nets out as a more positive message. Recall that Ronald Reagan's signature optimism, when it first appeared, was laughed at by political pros. Optimism won elections.

Whatever else, Barack Obama isn't talking sunshine in America. He's talking fast and furious. People not yet baptized into Obamamania may start to look past the dazzling theatrics to see a vision of the United States that is quite grim and could wear thin in the general election.

There may indeed be a Message B for the fall in the Obama drawer. This week's speech, like a televangelist's, may be designed to drive small contributions. The Web-site version ends with an appeal to donate to "this historic moment." I suspect, though, that it is the core of the Obama campaign, now or later.

Odds are that he will ride it to the nomination among Democrats for whom America can never quite escape the Depression. Hillary Clinton can only offer what she's got -- a clear-eyed ambition to get, and use, Democratic power.

Everything in life has a top -- stocks, football teams and political phenoms, as she well knows. Though down, Hillary ought to suck it up for Ohio and Texas and hope the Obama wave starts to break. On current course, it will.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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