The campaign trail to the primaries is long, and with ten months still ahead it will pass through a number of seasons along the way. And I’m not talking about winter, spring, summer, and fall; I’m talking about political seasons – those crucial intervals over the course of any campaign that are often self-contained according to their own unique objectives, demands, and questions. Each season will test the candidates in different ways, and a candidate’s success will depend on his or her ability to meet the challenges from one season to another. In a sense, for the candidates, each season is a matter of political survival.
For instance, the candidates just emerged from the so-called ‘Money Primary’ where the greatest emphasis in the race was on who could display their strength in terms of donations. Whose bankroll, in other words, most reflected the confidence of the people? That was the greatest objective of that particular season: fundraise your way to the front of the race. And by now we all know who emerged as the ‘winners’ of that particular season. Certainly though, with so much time remaining in the campaign, we can expect new objectives to present themselves to the candidates as time rolls on – objectives that will test them all in varying ways on their policy, performance, personality, and ultimately, their potential.
The weeks following the ‘Money Primary’ have introduced a new political season; one that is perhaps less substantive and far tamer, focusing in broad strokes on the personalities at the heart of these campaigns. Mitt Romney has become the focus of YouTube’s “You Choose ’08 Spotlight” series; John Edwards embarrassingly admitted to having paid $800 for two haircuts while on the trail; John McCain took a heavily-armed entourage with him to a market in Baghdad while boasting the city’s security. This is a season that is less concerned with profiles in courage and more concerned with profiles in general.
In fairness, I must briefly acknowledge that this is of course due in part to major and unexpected national events happening both in and outside politics in recent weeks. Inside politics, attention has been on the Alberto Gonzalez scandal and the Supreme Court decision regarding partial-birth abortion. Outside politics, there has been the Don Imus situation as well as the tragedies at Virginia Tech. These events rightly placed the presidential campaigns on the backburner. Yet, the campaigns roll on, and in the context of the recent weeks, the objective has mostly been on personal statements and personal responses to all of these events. The candidates have offered good-intentioned personal takes on these situations, which has in effect further contributed to this current season of crafting the personal profile.
This season is actually advantageous to the candidates in a sense as it allows each a certain space in which to establish his or her personality in the minds of the voters. Looking at Obama’s campaign over the course of the last few weeks, I see that he too has taken up an emphasis on his own personal profile. First, he appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman and chatted about his smoking habit as well as his disinterest in the vice presidency. And while the numerous rallies are growing in attendees and enthusiasm from Atlanta to Milwaukee, from Tampa to Boston, the message is largely the same from one venue to the next – a quick summary of The Audacity of Hope. Aside from Obama’s recent initiative to combat global warming, this has not been a season of policy for his campaign; it is instead a season of personality. And so it seems, his objective at this point, is to go city by city and introduce himself personally.
For Obama, this is a smart move. And the reason is this: success in politics largely depends on one’s ability to promote a personal narrative.
People like a story; they like telling a story, and they like hearing one. When politicians offer the people an exciting and compelling story, the people often respond with their votes. Think of Reagan, who said he had lived the American century, or of George W. Bush who campaigned in 2000 on the idea that he was an outsider, and also ‘a uniter, not a divider.’ The best thing that Obama can do right now is control his own narrative as best he can and direct it to serve as a background for the rest of his presidential bid.
And he is doing just that. The elements of any story are character, setting, and plot. Obama is effectively defining the setting as a ‘broken politics’ and the plot as an effort ‘to reclaim the American dream.’ But most importantly, there is the character driving the whole thing: ‘a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.’ A skinny kid who also was the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, who also worked as a community organizer in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, who also taught constitutional law, and who served as a state senator in Illinois for eight years before being elected to the U.S. Senate. He is, you could say, a character worth rooting for.
For those who have followed Obama since his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 or earlier, we know his narrative well at this point and have taken to heart his idea for a new politics. But for those who have no opinions or negative opinions about Obama, his city-by-city strategy makes sense. It is his chance to present himself and the idea of his candidacy as a story. And the more he tells it, the more it will define his campaign in the minds of voters. By captivating as many people as possible with that personal narrative, he will ultimately be able to withstand those other elements of a story that are outside of his control: conflict, climax, resolution.
All stories as driven by a primary tension or conflict that keeps people in suspense. It is the very challenge that the character goes up against. For Obama, that conflict is not an issue of personality, but of performance and policy. The twin perceptions that he lacks both experience and policy compared with the other candidates will be a dynamic that presents itself throughout each season of the campaign and acts as a constant threat to Obama’s success.
Of course, the ultimate climax of the election, as well as the resolution of an officially declared winner, are both far ahead, and we all are eager to hear how this story ends. But for Obama, he is smart to spend this present season in the campaign beginning to tell America a story that defines the election, the campaign, and himself on his own terms. Judging from how people have responded to his story so far, it seems that they are anxious to get to the polls and help write a happy ending for a man worth rooting for.