Friday, May 11, 2012

Obama: Campaigner-in-Chief

Barack Obama proved this week that his understanding of public opinion and how timing can be used to massage the media's storyline is head-and-shoulders above any campaigner we have known in modern history. Mitt Romney cannot begin to overestimate the gap between what Obama enacts by intuition and what he himself can barely perform by imitation.

On last Sunday's "Meet the Press," Joe Biden came out in support of same-sex marriage, an alleged gaffe that precipitated Obama's announcement this week that his own thinking on the issue has evolved to the same effect. This then allowed Obama to tout his new position to the Hollywood crowd from whom he was raising $15 million on Thursday evening (that's $13k per second of speech). Next morning, Obama wakes up to a story breaking about Mitt Romney bullying a presumptively gay classmate while in high school. Romney, for his part, is going to deliver the Commencement address at Liberty University this weekend to appeal to Christian conservatives -- which is, believe it not, exactly in sync with the temporal frame and media storyline the Obama campaign has quite consciously created.

What a way to launch the Obama re-election campaign. The campaign opens with one message: this is the Obama Democrats voted for in 2008. Who would have thought that the politics of Hope would actually make a come-back after three years of compromises and disillusion? Hope is what excites young people, and with it, it will not be the record Obama will be running on, but an America liberals can be proud of. Because this is a state-by-state race to 270, Obama understands that the youth vote matters in North Carolina, Iowa, and Colorado -- states that offer him an alternate route to victory other than the traditional way of Florida and Ohio.

The political dexterity of the Obama campaign in responding to changes on the ground can be seen in how they have turned the culture wars against Republicans. In 2004, the Bush administration used the culture war to rally the conservative base on the same-sex marriage issue, when a dozen of so states put constitutional amendments to define traditional marriage on the ballot. Today, Barack Obama is hoisting with that petard. Same-sex marriage is a losing issue for Republicans because while a majority of Republicans oppose same-sex marriage, a super-majority of Democrats support same-sex marriage. The reason why culture wars are waged is because their effect is asymmetric, and this time, it is benefiting the Democrats. And Republicans cannot in good faith argue that the culture war is a distraction from real economic issues that Americans ought to be talking about because they were the first to wage it.

In just two electoral cycles since 2004, the Republican candidate who ought to be spending his time talking about the lackluster economy is being forced to address allegations about his actions as a high school kid. If there is a science to politics, Team Obama obviously understands its laws and equations.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why Obama Cannot Receive Any Credit for his Actions

With the airwaves ablaze with a new controversy about President Obama campaign ad, it may be worth thinking about why it is  that it is so difficult for many Americans, even some on the Left, to give Obama credit for anything.

To proffer a tentative answer, I'm going to sketch the landscape of the comparison group -- how other presidents have been vilified. 

Every president has suffered his share of invective. Some were made fun of because of their physical traits. John Adams was called "His Rotundity" and Chester Arthur was the "Walrus." Others were attacked for their character flaws.  The Whigs called Jackson "King Andrew" and his successor, "Martin Van Ruin." Rutherford B. Hayes was scorned as "Rutherfraud" as a result of the Compromise of 1877.  Richard Nixon was derided as "Tricky Dick" and Bill Clinton, "Slick Willie." 

What is curious about the vituperation directed at Barack Obama is that the attacks are seldom directed at his body or his character. Woodrow Wilson was obsessive-compulsive, Jack Kennedy was a philandering playboy, Bush was an obstinate cowboy. Flawed characters are not ideal in our presidents, but at least we can identify with them. Most presidents are presumed American and therefore legitimate, even if they are imperfect.

Not so for Barack Obama. Many of the attacks on Obama start off with the unspoken assumption that he is so foreign and so unAmerican that he doesn't even pass the bar of legitimacy, much less identifiability. Indeed, his character may well be unimpeachable, certainly compared to Bill Clinton (pun intended). But that only reinforces his scary foreignness. Many of the attacks on Barack Obama do not even assume an identifiable personhood capable of moral corruption. He is painted as a foreigner with malign intentions on the nation when he is accused of caballing with President Medvedev, a Socialist, a Fascist, a Kenyan, or a Muslim. Whereas other presidents at least get to be Americans and identifiable persons who bear the epithets of their flaws, Obama is often cast as the secret representative of a group of marauding Others embedded amongst us.

And that is why the Obama ad claiming victory for the slaying of Osama Bin Laden was deemed by some observers as beyond the pale. The ad strikes at the heart of the insidious narrative that President Obama is unAmerican because he actually helped to take down America's greatest enemy. Yes, the ad was political. But all ads are. If it is so offensive for Barack Obama to take credit for taking out Bin Laden, maybe it is because some of Obama's critics start off from the presumption that only an American can take credit for a victory for America.

Knee-jerk reactions are often revealing. When Mitt Romney weighed in with, "any thinking American would have taken down Osama Bin Laden," he may well have unconsciously meant that his own Americanness was incontrovertible, certainly more incontrovertible than Barack Hussein Obama's. Or maybe this was a subtle pitch for the Birthers' vote. Either way, there are some Americans who simply do not think it enough to castigate Obama as a flawed American; they think it more appropriate to call out the fraudulence of an illegitimate foreigner pretending to take credit for a mission he probably wasn't even rooting for.

What Mitt Romney might or might not have done about the Bin Laden raid is an open question (even if the chances of Romney not having made the same call as Obama did is near zero), even if it is not for Obama. But of course Romney has a right to be outraged. His American character is under attack.

In what world is the slaying of America's greatest enemy not grounds for credit taking, or even impolitic bragging? It is in the world inhabited by those who are convinced that Obama is not an American, and he is not for America, and so of course he cannot take credit for anything he does for America.