'Yes, We Can' -- The Magic Behind Obama's Message
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There is a simple -- but profound -- reason why Barack Obama appears headed for the Democratic nomination, and it comes down to three simple words: I, we and you.
Have you seen Obama lately? Or heard him speak? Or listened carefully? I was one of the nine million Americans who saw Saturday's debates on ABC-TV. I was with a friend who facilitates meetings as a management consultant and we immediately saw and heard why Obama is different from the rest of the Democratic (and Republican) pack.
Basically, the other candidates are all saying, "I will do this," "I will do that," "I will be there in this way for you," as they recite the fine print of issues to show what they would do as president. Indeed, most of the horserace coverage from this and other debates is on the points scored by the candidates as they joust on this wavelength.
Obama, on the other hand, is not emphasizing the "I" pronoun. He is all about we and you. "We can do this." "We can do that." "If we come together, we can achieve ..." The former grass-roots organizer is making his candidacy inclusive. Obama is asking people to join him, implying that he will listen, hear them and include them in solutions that rely on the best in them and in society, not the worst.
The "I will" versus "We can" stance is not a minor distinction.
On Saturday, Hillary Clinton and Obama even debated this point on ABC.
"Words are not actions," Clinton said, "and as beautifully presented and passionately felt as they are, they are not action. You know, what we've got to do is translate talk into action and feeling into reality."
A few minutes later, Obama responded.
"The truth is actually words do inspire," he said. "Words do help people get involved. Words do help members of Congress get into power so that they can be part of a coalition to deliver healthcare reform, to deliver a bold energy policy. Don't discount that power, because when the American people are determined that something is going to happen, then it happens. And if they are disaffected and cynical and fearful and told that it can't be done, then it doesn't. I'm running for president because I want to tell them, 'Yes, we can.' And that's why I think they're responding in such large numbers."
Obama's campaign can be summed up in the power of three words, "Yes, we can."
The candidates who engage in first-person boasts or the pundits who nit-pick the issues and attenuate the horserace do not appreciate this distinction. Have you noticed how often in recent days pundits have written that Obama is different, special and unique in American politics? But they cannot say why.
"This is new. America has never seen anything like the Barack Obama phenomenon," wrote New York Times columnist Bob Herbert on Jan. 5. "Shake hands with tomorrow. It's here."
Obama's campaign may be a phenomenon, but it is not a mystique. Nor it is not unique.
George Lakoff, who has written many books on political communication, psychology and how both parties frame and win elections, said Obama's use of "we" and "you" -- and his gift for making people feel good and that they are being heard -- makes all the difference.
"He's saying 'we' and 'you.' It's a huge difference," Lakoff said. "It fits in with various other things."
"Obama has talked about an empathy deficit," he said, first speaking to the inclusive aspect of his campaign. "He understands what it means to connect to people, to listen to them, to understand what their needs and concerns are and that government should be responsive ... Hillary is all about policy. It is top-down. It is a rationalist model. It is 'we who understand and know policy know best.' It is telling people what is best for them."
John Edwards, Lakoff said, has this same approach.
"Edwards says, 'I will fight for you.' He is talking like a lawyer. He is being a lawyer," he said. "But he is falling into the same trap as Hillary."
Lakoff said he personally knows Clinton well enough to say that candidate Clinton is not the real Hillary. She is so afraid of falling into female stereotypes -- witness Monday's coverage of a near-teary moment in a New Hampshire diner -- Lakoff said, that "she has no idea how to be herself on the stump."
In contrast, Lakoff said Obama is one of the most honest people he has ever met -- a comment I have heard from others working on his campaign -- and that is a part of his appeal. "It is not a mystique," he said. "It is real. Charisma is real. It is tangible."
Ironically, while the Republican candidates have been falling over themselves to compare themselves to Ronald Reagan, the one candidate who seems to be making Americans feel good about themselves with an assured, easy manner and clear values -- as Reagan did -- is a Democrat in the race, Obama.
"Remember what Reagan was about," Lakoff said, agreeing with the comparison. "It's why people vote for candidates. Obama gets it."
"In the brain, there are two pathways for emotions," Lakoff said, offering an explanation for Obama's charisma. "There is a negative one for fear and anger. And there is a positive one. What Obama does and Reagan did was activate the positive pathways. George Bush activates the negative ones. Obama is activating the positive ones. He makes people feel physically good just by looking at him. The guy looks upbeat. He looks relaxed. You look at him and you feel upbeat, you feel relaxed. He feels empowered. You feel empowered. That's charisma."
Of course, unlike the Republican's great communicator, Obama's instincts and values are liberal, because to be liberal is to be inclusive and to believe that government had a role in fostering greater goods. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Bill Richardson also are politically liberal, but their manner of speaking is "I will." It is not "Yes, we can."
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and co-author of What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election , with Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman (The New Press, 2006).