The Final Countdown? Is Barack Obama Sending the Right Message?
September 24th, 2007
The high number of viable presidential candidates and the exceedingly early, and fervent din of election chatter, have made it difficult to focus on any single figure in the primary races.But the unprecedented vie for the Democratic nomination between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has placed both candidates at the forefront of American cultural and political consciousness. Hillary Clinton was a long awaited, obviously high profile contender. And newcomer Barack Obama garnered an instant, near messianic, grassroots following, particularly amongst the younger voting demographic. Obama’s easygoing charm and personal magnetism, which invite frequent comparisons to the youthful and also culturally daring John F. Kennedy, are undoubtedly a large part of why younger voters gravitate towards Barack Obama. The Senator’s celebrity status was very apparent at the Countdown to Change rally given on September 18th in Washington, DC. The audience in attendance was typically large, and diverse, for an Obama campaign event. The energy and enthusiasm of the crowd were palpable as we waited in uncharacteristically warm weather in the City Center parking lot, for the Senator to emerge. The scene certainly did not feel like a political event.
The tension in the audience was becoming increasingly apparent with the passage of every impatient minute. The crowd’s energy, feverish sales of promotional ringer t-shirts, and squads of post adolescent volunteers drafting voters to register, gave the afternoon event the feel of a music festival. The atmosphere was markedly different from even most political rallies. But at Obamapalooza, fully suited fifty year old professionals and entire families with young children, also comprised a significant portion of the crowd. There were even some *shhhh* Republicans.When Senator Obama finally graced the stage, a full rock star hour after the scheduled start time, what could only be called Obamamania ensued. People were of course cheering violently, but the adoration demonstrated by the crowd was a bit shocking as people rudely, not to mention fruitlessly, shoved past each other to reach the stage, blindly snapping whatever phone cam pictures they could of the candidate.
The Senator’s speech focused on the main issues highlighted in the campaign thus far: the failures of the Bush administration, the need to withdraw militarily from Iraq, a commitment to delivering universal health-care, and the need to address environmental issues. Obama also addressed securing voting rights in Congress for the District, an issue on which he had voted in the Senate earlier that day. Above all else, he emphatically, and repeatedly, expressed his resolve to change the dysfunctional manner in which politics is carried out in Washington. That cornerstone of the Obama campaign, is what resonated most with the fans. The Senator’s poise and charisma were evident, as was his ability to engage voters and get them fired up about politics.
The enthusiasm in that parking lot was incredibly infectious. I thoroughly enjoyed Senator Obama’s presence, and I definitely appreciate the spirit of his claims. But in the end, I was left a bit unsatisfied by the Senator’s lack of substantive speech regarding the specifics of his policy.In August, Senator Clinton’s camp seized the opportunity to exploit Obama’s weakness by pouncing on comments in which he suggested unfettered diplomatic interaction with certain Anti-American foreign governments. He was branded as naive and irresponsible, which sparked a deluge of commentary across the political spectrum questioning Obama’s ability to lead the country. Since then, the struggle has clearly grown more fierce, and Hillary’s lead on Obama has become increasingly distant. Given the higher stakes for Obama, I expected a stronger response than more of his enthusiastic, but ultimately fluffy rhetoric. He also threw in a strategic JFK quote, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”Obama argued that although he lacks a lengthy Washington resume like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, he insists that he has a distinguished record “where it counts,” inviting the assertion that experience does not guarantee good results. Obama’s ivy league preparation and impressive leadership on the Harvard Law Review are valuable experience. But democrats must avoid the toxic Massachusetts Liberal label that cursed John Kerry, explaining Obama’s focus on his international upbringing and his role as a public servant.
But fighting claims of being insufficiently practical by giving more vague, abstract concepts, does not seem like the most effective strategy. And although JFK may be a natural historical parallel and a valuable asset to Obama, quoting him on matters of foreign policy when his short tenure was marked by several highly problematic diplomacy situations, may come back to haunt him. Obama’s charm and cool swagger are also reminiscent of another young, dashing democratic candidate who had loads of magnetism and big ideas– the spouse of his main opponent.
Bill Clinton’s run for the presidency was also marked by a heightened focus on his persona, and he similarly drew the attention of younger voters as a different kind of politician preaching Third Way politics. Bill Clinton made a highly emotional appeal to voters, such as the television ad detailing his personal biography, which all began in a place called of all things, Hope, Arkansas. Bill’s campaign effectively tapped into a wider base using this strategy, selling voters the bluest of skies, artfully using his blue eyes and warm smile. Some say this strategy, atypical for democratic candidates, was one of the main points of success in Bill Clinton’s campaign. Ironically enough, Obama may be taking a cue from the first Clinton campaign and steering clear of giving too many details, instead focusing on his obvious personal strengths and uniqueness as a candidate. Like many Democratic candidates before him, Senator Obama has played very well with the young, and the highly educated. Perhaps an emotionally driven campaign message like Bill’s could grant Barack Obama enough of the blue collar vote that Hillary has so far commanded, and which Obama needs if he hopes to countdown towards anything past the early primaries. But the Clinton team will not go quietly, and they will likely push the infantile image of Obama as too wet behind the ears, as far as they can.Photo Credits:
Barack Obama at Countdown to Change Rally:
Nicole GuerraPresident Clinton with saxophone: