Most of the red-bricked storefronts on Olive Street are bare; many are empty. This one was a riot of colour with red, white and blue banners and posters. The reason was the one phrase emblazoned on all of them: Obama ’08. This is the St Louis county regional headquarters of the Barack Obama campaign.
Anna laid down the code of conduct for a visiting journalist – no talking to full-time staff, volunteers were fair game but whatever they said were personal views, and so on. “Otherwise, you can wonder about and do anything you wish,” she said, waving to the cavernous room behind her.
Twenty foot-tall pictures of Obama with simple words like Hope and Change hung from the wall. Filing cabinets and a bank of computers were tucked away in two opposite corners.
Three volunteers manned the front desk. A mother arrived with her two small children. “Can I have an Obama yard frame to put in front of my houses? Can I get two more for my friends?” she asked.
The volunteers were a contrast of elderly women and students. I asked them why they were doing what they were doing. Mary, an elderly white woman in jeans, said, “In this country we generally vote against someone. He’s the first one we can vote for, not against.”
Louise, a fragile black woman manning the telephone, was more specific. “I’m working to get him elected so he can, one, change the war; two, give us universal healthcare; three, change Washington where everything just gets bogged down in bureaucracy.”
No one mentioned race, though Mary said, “It will be nice to have a president whose family is a genuine melting pot.”
The theme that was loudest: the need to shake up things in the capital city. “Our founding fathers didn’t plan for career politicians. Politics was supposed to be a public service, a sacrifice,” said one. Said another, “McCain is a hero, but he represents the old ways in Washington. Obama is not so indebted to all those lobbyists and so on.”
In the evening, I drop by a smaller office in Euclid Street. Like Olive Street, at least half the people are black Americans.
I encounter Neal, an economic analyst of Indian origin, who volunteered in August to set up a phone bank. “There were three of us. We were told to just get it running though we had no idea how.” He pointed to the two or three tables crowded with black telephones and computers. “Now we have a list of 400 volunteers who we can tap.”
The room has four pillars covered with sheets of blue paper on which volunteers are asked to explain why they support Obama. Most of this boilerplate: change, Iraq, the economy, healthcare. One has enthusiastically written, “I’m for Obama because he’s so SEXY.”
“Funnily, as Obama does better in the polls we’re getting more cases of people declining to do volunteer stuff.” He shakes his head. “It’s not over until November 4th.”