His campaign assembled six voters with hard luck stories for a roundtable at the aptly-named New Hampshire chain.
There was the 25-year-old single mother with no health insurance and mounting school loans. She got choked up when another woman, cradling a 10-week-old, talked about her family’s strained finances and her wish just to stay home and raise her children.
Then there was Sandra Burt, who lost her job on her 65th birthday. She cannot afford her $2,900 monthly prescription drug costs (she tried skipping doses, but ended up in the hospital). Her husband cashed in his life insurance and sold his treasured truck. They live in a 30-year-old double-wide trailer where the thermostat is set at 64 degrees.
Obama listened intently at the center of a U-shaped table, but amid the heart-wrenching stories that moved even members of the media, he betrayed little emotion.
“We put on extra blankets. We put on an extra pair of socks, whatever it takes,” said Burt, weeping at the end of the table. “What would you do?”
Before Obama could respond, Burt apologized – “I’m sorry,” she said – for breaking down in front of klieg lights, more than a dozen cameras and many more reporters.
“No, listen, it is outrageous,” said Obama, his voice monotone. “We are going to change this.”
For all the charisma that Obama can show day-to-day, bringing crowds to their feet with optimistic rhetoric or lingering on the rope line to hear voters’ stories, he can also appear equally detached.
The dual personality of Barack Obama – the aloof, professorial side – emerged Wednesday at a time when he might have benefited from more of the I-feel-your-pain approach he exhibits regularly on the campaign trail.
His response to Burt was a snapshot of his stump speech.
“There is a direct correlation between the special interests agendas in Washington and your situation,” Obama said, looking down at the table as often as he did at her. “Nobody expects government to do everything for them. What people do expect is if you are working hard and doing the right thing, then you should be able to retire with dignity and respect and have some basic health care.”
“Can you fix it?” Burt asked.
“I know I can fix it if I got the American people understanding that it needs to be fixed,” he said.
When somebody handed napkins to Obama for Burt, he dropped the pile in her hands from across the table, passing up what could have been an opportunity to make contact. (Another way to look at it is he resisted pandering.)
He later mentioned the success of his book allowed him to buy a big house. He was highlighting the unfairness of a tax system that gave him a mortgage deduction not available to those who own less expensive properties, but the story seemed somehow misplaced.
As he dropped off presents at a Toys for Tots collection site later in the day, Obama said he was touched at the roundtable.
“It is exactly why we have to bring about change in this election,” he said.
By an early evening event in Manchester, where the pitch-perfect side of Obama’s personality returned, Burt had become an insert in his speech.
“She started crying in the middle of our conversation,” Obama said, recounting her story for 700 people.
Burt has become a bit of a mini-celebrity since August, when she lost her job, showed up at a rally for John Edwards, and detailed her plight for the crowd.
“Sandra, you are a living, breathing example of what I was talking about,” Edwards responded, according to the Concord Monitor. She was the “perfect example of a victim,” he said, of a health care plan written by big-money drug companies.
Burt later appeared in a radio ad for AARP,and works with New Hampshire for Health Care, an advocacy project of the Service Employees International Union. She said she has talked with Edwards, Obama, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
She’s narrowed her choice to Edwards and Obama, whose campaign, as part of the courting process, picked her up and drove her to a private house party in Manchester to meet him.
“He is a very, very interesting man,” Burt said. “He does take the time to listen to you.”
Asked by a reporter whether any of the candidates had actually tried to help her, Burt did not hesitate: “No one has helped me.”
An Obama aide listening to the exchange whisked her away moments later.
At the Toys for Tots drive, Obama explained that he talked with Burt privately after the roundtable – and promised help from his campaign.