Obama’s teeth, McCain’s brow, C-Webb’s ‘O’ face, suburbia’s panic

Presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama is the “change” candidate. It’s fitting, then, that the official Sacramento-area Obama-McCain debate viewing party took place last Friday at Center Court with C-Webb in Natomas, where Sacramento County’s vast acreage of field and flood plain was transformed into a big-box mecca of immaculately landscaped strip malls, déjà vu tract homes and matchbox apartments. Natomas is at once agreeable and disturbing, like stylishly coifed pubic hair.

Center Court is in one of these Butchart Gardens-like shopping centers, and the place is packed; there’s college football in the bar, and the debate is on flat-screen TVs in the main dining room (a replica hardwood-floor basketball court surrounded by a colonnade of booths). PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer’s unobjectionable, monotone baritone booms over the speakers.

In a horseshoe-shaped back room, there are no seats. Sacramento for Obama volunteers man a booth in one corner, Sen. Darrell Steinberg rests arms crossed in another. A couple dozen people cumbersomely try not to block everyone else’s lines of sight. Some guy’s pissed because I can’t help blocking his line of sight. Wait staff ignores everyone not seated at a table (e.g., me). The debate begins.

At this very moment tonight, where do you stand on the financial recovery plan?

Lehrer’s first question is for Obama, who sidesteps answering for generic appeals to Main Street and the middle class (who probably are the hundred or so people in this room): 40-plus, female, white, shops at TJ Maxx; likes onion rings, nachos, hot wings and ranch dip. The most reasonable change Obama could bring to America is better fashion sense and a healthier diet. After stabilizing the economy, of course.

Ten days ago, John said the fundamentals of the economy are sound,” Obama bites.

Lehrer, wanting to enliven the debate, gestures at McCain, “Say it directly to him.”

Obama shifts. “John, 10 days ago you said the fundamentals of the economy were sound,” he gnashes. The TV audience lets out an unauthorized laugh. The crowd munching on fried hors d’oeuvres applauds and cheers. McCain’s eyebrows flutter, Manchurian-like.

But, alas, that was the best of the evening’s very few zingers. Afterward, a woman in her 50s confesses that McCain overperformed. An Obama volunteer, a woman in her 30s, wants Obama to be more assertive. Who’s headed to the bar? Everyone’s worried.

And rightly so: The “fundamentals” of this economy are in the shitter. Retirement funds and home values are collapsing. Retail restaurants and stores are shutting down. The dollar is losing value worldwide. McCain, Obama, everyone—they’re thinking it: How long before a community like Natomas recedes into the shadows of its middle-class glory?

A Sacramento Bee reporter approaches me for an interview, but leaves when I tell him where I work. The next day, his story, a piece on “local debate parties,” is your average-folk-as-armchair-analyst take on the debate, à la sound-bite partisanship. But the final quote in the article stands out: “I have to think about what my children are going to face.”

Here’s something they won’t: suburbia.