Obama switches from rock star to professor

Barabak is a Times staff writer.

Clearly, Barack Obama can draw a crowd.

About 50,000 people in Orlando, Fla.; 75,000 in Kansas City, Mo.; 100,000 in St. Louis. And on Tuesday, more than 30,000 on the Miami waterfront, where Obama used a sunset rally to target the truthfulness of Republican rival John McCain.

“Apparently, Sen. McCain’s decided that if he can’t beat our ideas, then he’s just going to make up some ideas and run against those,” Obama shouted into the balmy night air. “Well, what we need now is not straw men; we don’t need misleading charges. What we need is honest leadership and real change.”

But the rock-star scene has grown so familiar that it’s no longer surprising -- or terribly newsworthy -- when the Democratic nominee attracts a super-sized audience. So Obama dulled things down on the second day of a Florida swing, presiding over an economic round table so academic it could have been professor Obama teaching one of his constitutional law classes.


The afternoon event in Lake Worth was grand in ambition: a round table with several Democratic governors, a former head of the Federal Reserve, the chief executive of Google. It was stately in execution, down to the 12 furled flags standing, sentry-like, against a blue-curtained backdrop.

It was also the rare Obama appearance that left his audience of 1,800 slumping into -- not leaping out of -- their seats. “It’s not what I was expecting,” said Victoria Pierre-Louis, 32, a Haitian immigrant and campaign volunteer, who sped up her citizenship application so she could vote Nov. 4. “I’m already a supporter, so I kind of know everything he’s doing. I was just waiting for a chance to scream and holler.”

But if the dozy headline from the seminar was “Obama meets economic leaders,” as opposed to “Obama draws another humongous mob,” that suited his strategy just fine.

Florida is suffering. As Obama pointed out, the state has lost more jobs in recent months than economically strapped Michigan and Ohio.

“We packed the schedule with rallies; we’re telling people to vote early,” said Jennifer Psaki, an Obama spokeswoman. “We also want people . . . to know what the [economic] solutions are and what the steps are going to be if Sen. Obama becomes president.”

So after the crowd exhausted chants of “Yes, we can!” and “We will rock you!” Obama begged their forbearance for “a more serious discussion” with “some of the smartest people you ever care to meet.” He outlined his economic recovery proposal, including a tax cut for working families, a tax credit for companies creating domestic jobs and a public-works plan to put people back to work.

Google’s Eric Schmidt chimed in with talk of futuristic technologies. Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland discussed his state’s “electricity restructuring bill,” aimed at promoting alternative energy. Paul Volcker, the former Fed chair, mumbled through a sometimes indiscernible discussion of market volatility and the recent upheaval on Wall Street.

Some welcomed the conversation. “I thought it was going to be a pep rally, and I see intelligent people having a discussion about lots of things. How could it be a bad thing?” asked Fred Sklar, 56, a water management scientist from West Palm Beach.

After 90-odd minutes, Strickland finally roused the audience with a political rejoinder, a poke at Joe the Plumber, the Ohioan who has become an economic totem for McCain and fellow Republicans.

Strickland said he had just visited Joe Wurzelbacher’s neighborhood, where he met “Sean the Ironworker,” who asked him to pass on a message to Obama: “Tell him Sean the Ironworker is building a bridge for him to the White House.”

That got them cheering.