Why Obama's Message Resonates with Millions
On the campaign trail with Barack Obama, four days before the Democratic convention. Another teeming high school gym in another halfway-to-somewhere town, decorated with still more banners proclaiming the heroic exploits of the Local Sports Team, in this case the football studs of Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, Virginia.
In the audience are the same characters you see everywhere on the campaign trail: the bare-armed cheerleaders congregating near the bleachers, the sullen-faced union workers dutifully decked out in matching T-shirts, the heavyset Soccer Moms cheering from the back rows with that weird overhand applause style they all seem to use, their fingers curled back so as not to ruin freshly painted nails. There are the same Secret Service agents waiting to herd the press into the same windowless concrete filing room, and the same exhausted, khaki-clad campaign staffers with the rapidly thickening backsides ready to queue up behind the journalists to fill their buffet plates with the same Regionally Appropriate Cuisine (pork ribs and hush puppies in the South; steak, corn and potatoes in the Midwest) made up with pride by the local caterers.
And to top it all off, there's even the same speech.
Four years ago, I listened first to Howard Dean and then to John Kerry as they went through the motions of promising to support the middle class, to create jobs through investment in renewable energy, to punish companies that exploited tax loopholes by moving overseas and to find the real terrorists in Afghanistan. They trod the same ground as Gore and even Clinton, coughing out the same paeans to the same lost paradise of the middle-class lifestyle, to those same vanishing days of our history when hardworking, patriotic Americans could live with comfort and economic security on one decent manufacturing job. At stake, they insisted, was nothing less than the American Dream itself. For Dean, it was "time for a change in America." Kerry sometimes ended his speeches by presenting his campaign as a choice of "change versus more of the same" -- a phrase he actually borrowed from Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign.
Here in Chesapeake, Barack Obama offers up the same milky hodgepodge of middle-class tax cuts, investment in alternative fuels and consequences for job exporters and terrorists. And rhetorically, he uses the same old magic trick for his main theme, talking about how all Americans want is to leave a better world for their children.
"That's the essence of the American Dream," he tells the crowd, echoing his predecessors. He goes on to tell the already-famous story of John McCain's seven houses, then explains that someone who has seven houses can't possibly understand what the middle class is going through. "You need a president who's going to be fighting for you," Obama says, to thunderous applause. He concludes by declaring, "We are going to fundamentally bring about change in America" -- a message punctuated by the huge banner hanging behind him, emblazoned with his infuriatingly omnipresent campaign slogan: "Change We Can Believe In." Obama has even taken to borrowing some of his theme music from other candidates: I was mortified when his rallies began to feature the worst of the Hillary standbys, the excruciating "I Won't Back Down" by Tom Petty. The painful predictability of it all was summed up by a front-page headline in The New York Times after the first day of the Democratic convention: "Appeals Evoking American Dream Rally Democrats."
All of this saccharine talk of "change" is so transparently a mechanical come-on that if it were anybody but Barack Obama uttering the word, you'd want to throw up at the very sound of it. And yet, as I watch Obama deliver the same hackneyed act I've seen hundreds of times before, I feel against my will that I am actually watching something different at work. After Kerry and Dean speeches, I often heard people say things like, "At least he's not as dumb as Bush." But after Obama speeches, I see audience members stumbling around in all directions with orgiastic smiles on their faces, as though they've been splashed with gallons of magic pixie paint. In Raleigh, North Carolina, where Obama knocked dead a massive town-hall crowd at a local fairgrounds with a speech that said almost nothing at all, I ask a woman named Melanie Threatt why she thinks her life would improve under an Obama presidency. "It just will," she says. When I press her for specifics, she says, "I just think doors are going to open." You hear stuff like this a lot on Planet Obama, and it makes you wonder just what it is you're encountering. Obama's followers implicitly believe in the things he says, and the fervor of their belief is more religious than intellectual, closer to faith than to reason. Watching him at work, you realize that Obama's remarkable success has almost nothing to do with the same-old product being marketed by the same-old political machine, and almost everything to do with the specific qualities of the individual who is selling it. The same stuff that sounded like hollow, invidious horseshit coming from Kerry and Gore sounds, as dispensed by Obama, like nothing less than a clarion call to collective action. And every time you feel his pitch working, you wonder: Is this some chat-room robot I'm falling in love with? Or is this an actual human being on the line, offering me an opportunity at last to fulfill my deepest desires?
Such, it seems, are the pitfalls of both love and politics in the Internet Age. Too many embarrassing false steps make it hard to take that leap one more time.
One thing that makes the cult of Obama difficult to dissect is the method of its dissemination. The technology of campaign propaganda has advanced to such a degree that the concept of campaign-trail "journalism" is now indistinguishable from corporate PR. The wall that once separated campaign staff from the press corps has broken down completely; those paid by the candidate and those covering him might as well be two different shifts on the same factory ship, working together to bring the world frozen fish patties by the ton. On the shimmering 757 that Obama uses to jet around the country, reporters have plastered the press section in the rear of the plane with cheery, offbeat photographs of themselves captured with campaign staffers in various goofy scenes (clowning with boom poles, quaffing beers, drooling while asleep on buses). The collage seems lifted straight from a high school yearbook; the press might as well have titled it "Our Cool Campaign."
Maybe it's natural that a certain camaraderie would develop between staffers and the press, given that the two groups are prisoners in the same campaign jail for months at a time. The constant Secret Service security protocol leaves everyone On the Bus roped off from all external human contact from morning till night; at the events in between, the press is often kept in windowless rooms behind closed doors or curtains, where reporters sit and listen to the candidate's speeches fed in via loudspeaker. This hilarious setup makes it possible for so-called "political journalists" to cover a candidate without (a) seeing him, (b) seeing his audiences and (c) receiving any information at all that is not fed to them directly by the campaign. On one recent swing through the South, I actually witness a reporter sitting in a concrete filing room during a town-hall session, checking his BlackBerry for an e-mail from the campaign staff to find out what town he is in.
Hemmed in by such restrictions, America's top political journalists have nothing better to do than flog their expensive college educations by playing games like Guess the Identity of Obama's Running Mate. At a VFW convention in Orlando, when Obama mentions "my friend, Senator Joe Biden," reporters -- we were all walled off in a basement room hundreds of yards from the actual speech, watching the candidate on a little TV -- actually break out in hysterical cries of "That's it! It's Biden! It's Biden!"
The rest of the time, reporters think about food. When's lunch? Will there be snacks in the filing room? Is there booze on the bus this time or no booze? When we roll into Richmond, Virginia, one night, I hear an older female reporter complain to another, "They didn't even have white wine on our bus!" Reporters on the campaign trail are like the migrant laborers I met on assignment years ago in an Orthodox monastery in central Russia. With every minute of every workday exactly the same, the laborers devoted themselves to guessing what would be served at lunch, the one slot in their schedule that was different every day. Would it be borscht or cabbage soup? Mayonnaise with their bread or no mayonnaise? I heard conversations an hour long on that theme.
This is what the journalists have been reduced to: the level of indentured field hands at a Russian monastery. With such a castrated press corps in tow, Obama doesn't have to work very hard to "sell" his message. The whole process has been streamlined, politically and culturally, to smooth the spread of the party's propaganda: The speech is already written, the press is already on board, and everybody's already working together to crank out those fish patties.
So here's the interesting part: It's surprising that there is an interesting part. Someone like me -- someone who has actually sailed on this factory ship long enough to get sick at the first whiff of fish -- is instantly dismissive of anyone who dirties himself by entering this world. If the second coming of Jesus Christ stepped on the bus to run on the Democratic ticket, I'd be wondering who paid for his robe and why his message cribbed so much from the New Testament. But even I find myself being seduced by Obama, despite everything I know about the party he represents, its record and where it gets its money. There's just something about the guy; he has that effect.
Obama manages to appeal somehow to that part of us that is tired of there always being another side of the story when it comes to our presidents. We don't want to live in a world where there's always a set of lurid secret tapes that will come out someday, or a mistress with a cigar in her twat hidden off-camera somewhere, or a backroom deal to juice a prewar intelligence report for a bunch of oil-fat-cat golf buddies.
We've become trained to look for the man behind the mask, for in real life there is no one whose emotional life is confined to a lifelong, passionate love for his high school sweetheart wife and their two children, an undying appreciation for the sacrifice of soldiers, awe before the flag and concern for the future of the middle class. Oh, and a burning passion for reducing dependence on foreign oil 30 percent by 2018 and for full federal funding for special education. Because that's the standard we set for our presidential candidates; anyone who reveals himself to have other things going on inside, to be more human than that, never makes it this far.
But I'm not sure there is a mask when it comes to Barack Obama. It sounds crazy, but he might actually be this guy, this couldn't-possibly-exist guy, inside and out. I heard Joe Lieberman talk about his middle-class dad, I heard Hillary plaster every corner of Pennsylvania with talk about her grandfather's sojourn in the lace factory, I heard John Edwards tell everyone who would listen, and even some who wouldn't, about what being the son of a millworker meant to him, and in every case I could feel the cold hand of political calculation crawling up my shirt as they spoke.
Then I hear Obama tell audiences about his grandmother and her time working on a bomber assembly line during World War II. Intellectually I know it's the same thing -- but when you actually watch him in person, you get this crazy sense that these schlock ready-for-paperback patriotic tales really are a big part of his emotional makeup. You listen to him talking about his grandfather waving a little American flag on the Hawaiian beach as he watched the astronauts come in to shore, and you can almost see that these moments actually have some kind of poetic meaning for him, and that he views his own already-historic run as a continuation of that pat-but-inspirational childhood story -- putting a man on the moon then, putting a black man in the White House now.
Obviously, Obama has some off-script moments of anger, and ill humor, and ego; his personality sometimes comes out looking well short of iconic. During his appearance in Chesapeake, a teacher gets up to complain about her long working hours since the passage of No Child Left Behind and starts to say something about how no one should have to work 13 hours a day, and --
"Not unless you're running for president!" Obama quips rosily, thinking the audience is with him. Instead, many in the crowd grow silent, drinking in the rock-star candidate's curious decision to compare his admittedly tiring-but-still-thrilling quest for ultimate earthly power with some dreary educator's slavish pursuit of a paycheck.
Obama also makes dumb jokes, and flirts with his audience ("Y'all are silly!" he told a group of girls who overdid the shrieking-Beatles-fan act when he took off his suit jacket), and overdoes it on the gooey poeticizing (his gushing over the beauty of America "from sea to shining sea" is particularly atrocious). But all in all, you never get a sense that there's a more interesting side of Obama lurking underneath somewhere. Oddly enough, the guy only really lights up when he starts delivering those same ham-handed lines about the American Dream that fell out of the mouths of Dean and Kerry like dead bullfrogs.
And maybe that's the difference. When those other guys took this act on the campaign trail, it was obvious they were just reading lines in a bad script. But maybe it sounds different coming from Obama because he actually means what he says, as weird as that would be. The American Dream, after all, is dying. We do need something new. That much is painfully obvious.
What's confusing about Obama is that he's so successful at projecting an air of genuineness and honesty, even as he navigates the veritable Mount Everest of fakery and onerous bullshit that is our modern electoral system. And the reason it's confusing is that we've grown so used to presidential candidates who fall short of the images they present in public, we don't even know anymore what a man worth the office would look like. Is this him? Or is this just a guy with a gift for concealing the ugliness of the system he represents? As I watch Obama on the campaign trail, I know I'm listening to the Same Old Shit, delivered by a candidate who could cross the Atlantic on a bridge constructed entirely from Wall Street cash culled for him by party hacks and insiders. But I suddenly don't care. It's not just that the alternative is four years of the madman John McCain. It's that, if Obama wins, it will be interesting to find out, at long last, if there really can be something truly different about someone who sounds so much the same.
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