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By Jay Cost

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On Obama's Message

Pundits have criticized the McCain campaign as disorganized, undisciplined, and directionless. These are valid critiques. His camp occasionally reminds one of the incoherent Dole, Gore, and Kerry campaigns.

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is the opposite of this. He is the Felix Ungar to McCain's Oscar Madison.

However, Obama's organization is built around a politically risky meta-narrative.

A meta-narrative is just a campaign's central message, the core claim that connects all of the campaign's assertions. It communicates the candidate's diagnosis of the country and his prescription for the future. Bill Clinton had a great one in 1992: generational change can invigorate a tired government and grow a sagging economy. Clinton's outfit consistently reinforced this narrative. From the campaign theme, to the selection of Al Gore as running mate, to "It's the economy, stupid" - it made sure people knew his core claim.

Obama's narrative should be similar to Clinton's. It's tailor-made for a year like this and a man like Obama. But that is not the Obama campaign's message. Its message often seems to be: this great man will unify a divided America around himself.

This is not entirely bad. A message of unity could be effective, even though it is tricky to sell in a partisan campaign. The trouble comes with the part about Obama himself. His campaign's emphasis on his greatness is creating three political problems.

Navigate to BarackObama.com, and you'll find this at the top of almost every page.

Obama Banner.jpg

If Democrats are wondering why Republicans have taken to sarcastically calling Obama "The Messiah," this is a good indication. On nearly every page, we are greeted with a picture of an illuminated Obama issuing a challenge from the clouds: if you believe this special man can change Washington, rally behind him.

This is a shaky foundation for a voting coalition. Most voters will be skeptical that Obama is so grand. So, why should they vote for him?

If he is going to issue a challenge to voters, it should be something like: if you don't like George W. Bush and if you are upset about the economy, vote for Obama. Cue Fleetwood Mac. Drop balloons.

Another example. Most of us have seen pictures like this:

Obama Progress Poster.jpg

This was not made by the Obama campaign, but it apparently thinks enough of the picture to offer it for sale at BarackObama.com. It certainly conveys similar ideas to that picture of him in the clouds. His greatness is a source of progress that we can all support.

Unfortunately, this imagery spills into the real world, too. Obama is holding his nomination acceptance speech at Invesco Field, which can hold 75,000 spectators. This will divert attention from any practical political vision (assuming that he offers one) to the Obama-centered spectacle. This is what the pundits will emphasize, so he's sure to get good buzz. People watching at home are likewise bound to be caught up by it, so he should also get a good bounce.

However, his campaign does not need buzz, or even a bounce. They call it a bounce because the numbers eventually come back down. The lasting value of a good nomination speech is that it frames the general election campaign on the candidate's terms. By choosing such a venue, the Obama campaign will again frame the contest as one in which voters are asked to decide about the grandeur of Obama himself.

This is a poor way to frame a general election campaign. Everybody thinks the economy is lousy and a strong majority thinks George W. Bush has done a poor job, but not everybody thinks Obama is the greatest thing since sliced bread. To get to half-plus-one, he must persuade people who are resistant to this claim. He must frame this election in a way that appeals to them.

The second problem is that this narrative might be keeping him from doing things that winning Democrats have typically done. Strong Democratic candidates like FDR, Truman, Johnson, and Clinton made "average folks" feel like they were one of them. Each connected with average people in his own way, but each connected. Most of them could do this because they had typical backgrounds themselves. Obama doesn't, but neither did Roosevelt (though of course Roosevelt's background was quite different from Obama's). And yet FDR could talk to average people better than anybody.

The common touch is not a trifling quality. Most voters are not policy experts, and they lack detailed political information. Yet they must still make a choice. In that situation, what should swing voters (i.e. those not guided by partisanship) do? It makes sense for them to vote for the guy with whom they can relate. That's a candidate who can be trusted to do what the voters would want him to do.

Obama's narrative seems to preclude this quality. The claim of greatness carries with it an implication of distance. If Obama is great, and the rest of us are average, how can we identify with Obama, or he with us?

Prior to Independence Day, Obama went to Independence, Missouri, home of Harry Truman. Good backdrop. Past Democrats might have given a speech here about how the essence of American independence is home ownership - but because of the "cronyism of George W. Bush, John McCain, and the Republicans, our independence is being threatened."

Obama did not give that speech. Instead, he gave a 3,500-word lecture on patriotism. The media loved it, but it had a problematic subtext. Lectures necessarily come with a presumption about the lecturer's elevated standing on the subject. Thus, the speech fit with the above images because it implied that Obama possesses some special gift - in this case, one that qualifies him to lecture the public about patriotism. This is not the way to develop a connection with the average voter. No candidate should ever lecture any voter on any subject for any reason.

The third problem is that it can diminish his greatest political strength - his rhetorical skill.

This was the conclusion of his June 3rd speech:

[G]enerations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment - this was the time - when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals.

I have read through this speech many times, and I am not entirely sure what "this moment" actually is.

Is it a broadly defined one, encompassing the entire campaign and the process of rejecting the policies of George W. Bush? That would be a pretty modest claim, casting Obama as the leader of a movement that is bigger than he.

Or, is it more narrow, referring to the point when the Democratic Party chose him over Hillary Clinton? That would be an extremely grandiose claim. The policy differences between Obama and Clinton were virtually nil, so the benefits of this moment would be produced by Obama's unique personhood.

Honestly, I can't tell which one he is on about.

Obama thanks his fellow Democrats in glowing terms, which makes me think that he understands he is just one of many who could have produced this moment. He also says that he is humble, which is consistent with the idea that this moment is not about him personally. But at other times, like when he thanks his supporters for listening to their hopes rather than their fears, he implies that he's actually talking about the narrower moment. Then there is the venue itself, which was meant to give the sense that this particular evening was momentous. What's more, June 3rd really was a momentous day in the primary battle. So, when he talks about this moment, it's natural to think of June 3rd.

So, Obama's role in the speech is ambiguous. Is he the imperfect vessel of the common good, or is he its personification?

This diminishes the speech's effectiveness. It also makes me wonder what to expect in Denver. In light of the images depicted above, as well as the speech he gave in Independence - I think it is reasonable to believe that the June 3rd speech was ambiguous because his campaign is of two minds. It surely doesn't want to create a cult of personality with Obama as the messiah. Nevertheless, it is depicting him in the clouds, it is selling art that portrays him as the fount of human progress, and somebody in the campaign created an Obamafied Great Seal that somebody else approved. Perhaps it isn't surprising that his June 3rd speech straddled both viewpoints. Will the speech on August 28th do likewise?

Early in his candidacy, Obama's narrative was very different. He was a candidate mobilizing the public into a social movement for the sake of the common good. This was a good message - but because of his campaign's grandiose rhetoric and imagery, it has been displaced. Obama no longer seems like the mere mobilizer, working to unite people around the common good. Instead, he often seems like the point of the mobilization itself.

He should return to that initial narrative. I can think of three ways to do this.

First, remove the over-the-top stuff from the website.

Second, hire a speechwriter who appreciates Obama's rhetorical style, but is not left breathless by him, and who knows what Democrats should say to swing voters. Obama is a good speaker, but his material needs to be crafted so as not to leave the impression that he thinks this is all about him.

Third, embark on an "Anytown, USA" bus tour where he can meet people on the street, visit struggling factories (making sure he doesn't wear a suit), neighborhoods where dropping home values have been a problem, and places where gas prices have hit consumers especially hard. No big venues. Small stuff. Out in the open. Unscripted and organic.

Interstate 70 runs straight from Baltimore to Denver, running through a cross-section of the country. An I-70 bus tour might be a perfect venture for Obama. He could start at Fort McHenry in Baltimore (a great venue to launch the tour) and travel all the way to Denver, arriving right before his nomination speech. Along the way, he could stop to meet and greet his fellow citizens, just as George Washington did in 1789. If that isn't enough, I'd note that I-70 actually runs right through Terre Haute, Indiana - the home of Evan Bayh!

-Jay Cost