When Sen. Barack Obama explains why he entered the 2008 presidential race even though he's relatively young (46) and relatively inexperienced on the national stage, he invokes a phrase attributed to Martin Luther King Jr.: the fierce urgency of now.
The nation's problems can't wait any longer to be solved, Obama says, and if he can make a difference he wants to do it now.
The sentiment behind that phrase was on display Feb. 25 at the University of Cincinnati, where Obama brought his Rock show rally to a crowd of more than 10,000 at Fifth Third Arena. The mix of college students, union workers, Democratic Party officials and adults of various ages and races greeted Obama with a fierce urgency of their own.
Obama touched on the familiar themes from his campaign during his 45-minute speech, delivered as he roamed across a large stage placed in front of one set of the arena's end bleachers. About 500 people stood on the floor in front of the stage.
"Change has to come from the bottom up," Obama said, challenging the audience to join him in changing the country instead of expecting the new president to do all the work.
Acknowledging that his presidential rivals have ridiculed his "campaign of hope," Obama said, "Hope isn't blind optimism. It's a belief that things will get better if you work hard enough."
He said that American voters are gravitating toward him because they want to feel that someone will fight for them in Washington, D.C.
One of the most effective personal moments came when Obama discussed his proposal to improve the nation's health care system and talked about his late mother, then battling cancer, having to deal with a mountain of insurance forms during her illness.
One of his funnier moments involved Obama's remark that he's happy the Bush/Cheney administration is finally coming to an end, which drew loud cheers. Obama said he'd learned recently that he and Cheney might share a distant relative.
When you find out about your geneology, Obama said, "you always hope you're related to someone cool." He then shook his head, shrugged and laughed.
Before the speech, Mayor Mark Mallory announced in his introductory remarks that he was pledging his super-delegate vote to Obama, which resulted in roaring approval from the audience and a hug from Obama when he came on.
After Obama spoke, he sat for a brief interview with me in an arena meeting room. I had just five minutes (timed by a campaign press official with a stopwatch), so I focused on questions I thought CityBeat readers might be interested in and topics I hadn't heard Obama discuss much in his campaign stops.
CityBeat: Explain a little more about your proposal to offset $4,000 per student per year for college education while in return expecting 100 hours of community service annually.
Barack Obama: We detail exactly how we're going to do it on our Web site (www.barackobama.com). We'll be significantly expanding the Peace Corps., doubling their numbers. We'll have a searchable database so people can select and tailor their own community service.
They'll get (the $4,000 credit) depending on how they do their service. They'll be signing an agreement. They'll be getting the money ahead of time so they can complete college. Some programs like the Peace Corps have longer service (and the service can be paid back over time).
CB: Cincinnati is a media market dominated by the country's largest newspaper chain, Gannett, and largest radio station chain, Clear Channel. The Bush administration's appointees on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have pushed for even greater media consolidation. How do you view media consolidation vs. media independence?
Obama: Very important. If you look at Chicago when I was in the state legislature trying to raise issues, I wasn't well known in the media. And you had papers like the Chicago Reader (alt weekly), radio stations like WVON (AM talk station geared to an African-American audience) and traditional African-American papers like the Chicago Defender that provided venues for critical communities to have a voice in the public debate.
That is something that has to be maintained. So my general bias is in the direction of more diversity and making sure the traditional media like print, radio and TV are open to all people. Also the Internet should be preserved as a way for people to easily get their ideas out there.
CB: So you favor "net neutrality?"
Obama: Yes, that's a classic example.
CB: As president, would your FCC appointments become watchdogs against media consolidation?
Obama: Yes, absolutely.
CB: Cincinnati is known for its support of the arts, its successful arts organizations and its popular public TV and radio, yet every year it seems that federal funding of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the public broadcasting system are in danger of being eliminated by Congress. What's your support level for the arts and for public media?
Obama: The NEA and public broadcasting will not be on the brink of those same cuts under my administration. I think they're vital to the health of the country and to the spirit of the country. I think our children benefit and our country benefits from investments in the arts, and I intend to continue those investments as president.
CB: Cincinnati continues to deal with issues raised when civil unrest and a four-day curfew followed the 2001 shooting of an unarmed African-American man by a Cincinnati Police officer. Most American cities are dealing with racial tensions. Race remains a powerful divider in the country. How does your own personal story inform your approach to helping heal these divisions?
Obama: I come from a diverse background, obviously. I had a white mother and an African father and I grew up in Southeast Asia and Hawaii, a real melting pot.
My starting point is a belief that we're all the same under the skin, that we all have the same hopes and dreams and aspirations. But we have a tragic history that we're still having to deal with. And that expresses itself in terms of poverty and the health and income gap between white and black and the disproportionate amount of violence in the African American community that has to be dealt with.
And I think as president it's very important to highlight these gaps and to get people of goodwill of all races to start listening to each other and to start finding practical, commonsense solutions to move forward instead of engaging in name calling that ends up not producing much.
CB: You asked your Cincinnati audience, and all your crowds, to dare to hope and to overcome cynicism. Yet Americans have almost been trained to be cynical when it comes to politics. How can you overcome people's reluctance to give in to hope?
Obama: I think that history teaches us that positive change is never easy and for every two steps forward you take maybe you might have to take one back. But the trajectory of this country has been to expand civil rights, expand civil liberties, expand prosperity, create more unity.
This is a much more just and prosperous country than it was 100 years ago, and our job is to make sure that 100 years from now people will look back and say we kept on making progress. But it won't be perfect.
See CityBeat's Ohio Primary section for full coverage of Tuesday's races, candidates and issues.