Obama's Job Chapter 38 Problem

Jay Cost notices that a candidate who casts himself as the Lord who speaketh out of the whirlwind has a hard time running as a ‘regular guy.’ (As I have mentioned before, while Obama speaks the language of Christianity, unlike most religious politicians, he always seems to use language that places himself in the role of the Lord.). And that’s not the only problem with Obama’s pretensions of grandeur.

Here is Cost on Obama’s website (which Patrick Ruffini also knocks for its single-minded devotion to hitting up the rubes for cash):

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?

The irony, of course, is that Obama’s running a “great man” campaign that would make George Washington blush and Abe Lincoln retch, a campaign that Dwight Eisenhower or Thomas Jefferson would look at and say “I can’t live up to that” – yet Obama’s doing it on a resume as thin as that of John Edwards, and thinner than that of any major party candidate in living memory. If John McCain ran as a quasi-messiah and cast himself as a historic figure already worthy of having his face on a coin and his campaign speeches sold in bound volumes and marked for the history books, people would have said “yeah, he’s an impressive war hero and a memorable Senator, but he’s not that great.” Take McCain’s resume and subtract basically everything on it, and you have Obama.

In other words, the core narrative of Obama’s campaign is not true, or at a minimum is entirely unsupported by evidence. He has no basis for selling himself as a great man, and still less for selling himself as a unifying or healing figure. To the contrary, it’s precisely because of the gap between Obama’s messianic persona and his paltry record that Obama is such a divisive figure, as the fissures in the Democratic primary electorate showed. Why? Consider the thought process required to accept the fiction of Obama as a great man, and consider the position of the voter who resents being told to follow this reasoning to its palpably false conclusion.Let’s speak of a blunt reality here: Obama’s claim to greatness is the ultimate example of what President Bush has memorably called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” He’s a freshman Senator who spent 8 years as a state legislator, compiling a record no more noteworthy than hundreds of state legislators around the country, and he’s spent half his tenure in the Senate (including the entire time since his party took over the chamber) running for his next job. He did nothing especially noteworthy, newsworthy or lasting before running for public office. His accomplishments are basically that he speaks smoothly, managed to finish a good school, has held a series of steady jobs and is raising a family, looks comfortable in a suit, and hasn’t snorted cocaine in several years. These are treated as great accomplishments only by people who look at Obama and, instead of seeing a man very much like the shallow, self-satisfied Edwards (only without even Edwards’ success as a trial lawyer), see only the color of Obama’s skin and the very low expectations they project on a man that color. There’s a word for people who think that way, it starts with “r” and it’s not “Republican.”

As Cost notes, the thematic problems spawned by this central fiction don’t end with Obama’s website – they are likely to be exacerbated by the majestic setting of Obama’s convention speech:

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.

I found the last Democratic convention ineffective because it didn’t deliver a consistent team-driven message, and Obama’s me-first keynote speech was a part of that. We’ll see how they frame their message this time, but nothing we have seen from the Obama camp suggests that they will tone down the sense that the audience is being asked to accept Obama as one of the great figures of history.

Here is Cost again on where this hurts Obama the most – the “regular guy” factor:

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?

You should take the time to read Cost’s whole analysis. Obama is running a classic front-runner campaign, almost an incumbent-style Rose Garden campaign – limited media access, avoiding his opponent, broad symbolic imagery in place of specific proposals, focus on making people think of him as already the president. McCain, who loves being the underdog, has been happy to play along thus far. Conventional political analysis, as Cost applies, tells us that this gigantic bluff is a fatally flawed way to run the campaign of a candidate whose place on Mount Rushmore is not self-evident to a majority of voters. It remains to be seen whether the bluff can last through November, or whether voters tire of a man who preaches at them the gospel of himself.