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Obama goes retail amid big money rush

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CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA Musings on life, politics and economics from TOI's Washington correspondent

President Obama sent out an email last week to voters soliciting small donations for his presidential campaign. "Friend - When I decided to run for president, I had significantly fewer grey hairs than I do today, " the email began. "Michelle says I've earned them, which is the nicest possible way to say I'm getting older. "

It was a cool, light touch, joking about his age. Obama will turn 52 today (August 4), one of the youngest leaders in the world, and one of the youngest American presidents even as he bids for a second term. The birther controversy has died down, although there will always be a constituency that will believe Obama was born anywhere but the USA. But they are a marginal crowd of wingnuts.

Obama is right about his greying hair, although it's not unusual. American presidents grey visibly in office. Guess it happens to everyone, American presidents included, unless, like most of our prime ministers, they are already grey and wizened when they come into office.

George Bush greyed significantly by the time he won a second term, as did Bill Clinton, whose hair is snow white now. Expect Obama to be completely grey by 2016 if he wins a second term. Grey hair is equated with wisdom, but conclusive proof exists only with regards to its appearance with ageing and intimations of mortality. Bill Cosby called grey hair "God's graffiti".

But Obama has a cool, untailored approach to politics and people that belies the greying head. At a time American politics is being pilloried for succumbing to big money, and new records are being set in campaign contribution from fat cat donors, Obama has gone casual and retail, talking to the small guy, the poor woman, the marginal crowd, to show that he cares. Does he really?

It's not that Obama does not court big money. He has his collection of fat cat donors as well - lobbyists who want a favourable piece of legislation, donors who want an ambassadorship, or supporters who want access to the White House by way of invitations to banquets and dinners. But he does not take his eye off his primary constituency - which comprises those who have little to give beyond their votes.

The requests made to small contributors were pretty light and the rewards huge. For as little as $3 per head, donors would be entered into a raffle, and the winners (and a guest of their choice) get to meet Obama for a private dinner. This is no racket. There have already been winners in this "Date with Obama" lottery, and there will be more in the weeks to come. In a season of billion-dollar campaigns, it brings an endearing element into an election signaling that the small voter also matters.

One such winner was Janet Jones, a 64-year old grandmother from the Washington DC area who made a $25 donation to the Obama campaign. Days later she received a phone call from the White House saying she had won a dinner date with Obama (with two other winners, a retired auto worker and a firefighter). The dinner was held at the Lincoln Restaurant close to the White House. And while the political paparazzi stalked outside, the foursome talked for an hour about workaday concerns, from healthcare to gas prices.

"We weren't sure what to expect when he came in the room sauntering as only he can do, " Jones said later. "He just grabbed us and embraced us with this strong, warm hug and greeted everyone by name. He has a huge, easy smile. He has a way of inviting you into his world, and he easily steps into your world. When the worlds connect, it's like we are all family. "
While Jones and her poor and middle-class cohorts paid less than $100 between them for an intimate sit-down dinner with Obama, only a day before, an elite, super-rich crowd of wealthy donors paid as much as $40, 000 per head just to be in the same room as the President. There was good food, fine speeches, and sparkling jokes, but it is doubtful Obama took away anything from the event except money.

Obama is equally at ease with this crowd, but it's clear who he values more. Big donors fork out the money, but it's the small donors who not only show up on election day but do all the grunt work leading up to it - putting up posters and placards, knocking on doors, making the phone calls, and helping get voters to the polls. Obama had more of them on his roster than Mitt Romney.
They are the ones who are expected to carry Obama across the line on November 6.

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