In watching last night’s Barack Obama’s 30-minute prime-time TV ad, one couldn’t escape the sense that this was a culmination of sorts. We are now 5 days away from the most important election of our times, and never have I seen such intense interest in a presidential election. Then again never have I seen such an “advertisement”, or “commercial”, that was so seamlessly produced in a way that could capture the nation’s attention so close to an election by such a unique candidate. Should we reproach Obama for the fact that his campaign has the wherewithal to fund this ad and approach the seven TV and cable networks (CBS, NBC, Fox, MSNBC but not ABC or CNN) and say, “Can we buy 30 minutes of air time?”? Is it fair that his campaign, at last count, has now amassed something close to $600 million? If the largesse were McCain’s, don’t you think they would have done the same? It just strikes me that the McCain campaign has been engaging in some childish playground name-calling. They don’t like that this time it’s the Democrats who have clearly outspent them. They don’t like to acknowledge the fact that their candidate has been without a clear and defining message and that, though the race will probably tighten in the waning days, this campaign has been in a freefall.
What Obama produced last night was a final argument of sorts. This is who he is. This is what he represents. By taking us through a series of vignettes of average, though struggling Americans, he was able to unveil major elements of his platform: his tax cut plans, his plans about energy, health care, troop reduction in Iraq, etc. This was a way to fully connect his audience with the same people he has been meeting all around the country. The weaving between the personal stories –the single mother who is making ends meet in Albuquerque, the third-generation Ford worker in Louisville who may lose his job—and the explanations of Obama’s plans was very effective, one being almost illustrative of the other. The stories themselves were never cloying or overwrought.You almost felt like you were at the Sanchez family table, mother Juliana a widow with two children and a mortgage. You hear the laughter of a tight-knit family with grandparents and grandkids. Yet you also follow her on her daily routine: waking up before dawn working with at-risk kids, and later, another job (“Most of us who are educators have a second job”, she says), and finally, a simple trip to the grocery store and the gentle shock of high food prices. She pushes a barely-full grocery cart; she walks out with only two plastic bags. I was actually struck at the very beginning with the mother who is pumping gas, then walks over to the back window of her Ford Explorer and ticks off all of her children’s names that are represented with stickers on the window. She is a provider, she is someone who just wants the best for her family, “shaping them like putty”. This is North Kansas City, MO, this is a small town like the one in “Friday Night Lights” –cue the Friday night football game. This is just a slice of American life that sees itself in simple, desperate times –moments that we can all understand.
Obama’s ad is clearly a direct appeal to voters, speaking especially to those who are still undecided in battleground states. It’s almost unbelievable that there are states that Bush won in 2000 and 2004 which are swinging in favor of Obama and not in the Republican direction. It’s no coincidence that after Obama’s taped commercial, he was “live” in Fort Lauderdale, FL, a state that McCain is barely holding on to. Florida? If McCain cannot hold on to this state of strong conservative values and an older population, then it’s time to pack it in? Up in North Carolina, where Liddy Dole may lose her Senate seat, it’s the same story. Virginia? These are firm, almost entrenched Republican territories with a significant military population which have been moving Obama’s way. Which is quite striking, since the last time Virginia voted for a Democratic candidate for President, it was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. The erosion of support for McCain certainly can be attributed to the rotten downturn in the economy, especially the meltdown of the last month, which showed McCain to be unsteady and indecisive. He was also unable to separate himself from this administration’s policies and the talk of his being a “maverick” has more or less worn off. In contrast, Obama has once again regained the mantle as the “change” candidate, and he has shown to be steadier, “presidential” and more articulate than McCain in the presidential debates. These are opinions, of course, not facts, but there is a consensus that these perceptions still hold.
It’s not just that McCain has made numerous and costly errors in his campaign that we see polls today that favor Obama. For a time McCain really was a lightning rod, galvanizing his supporters and even for a while in September, he instantly took Obama’s post-convention afterglow by choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. In recent weeks, even this has become an increasing liability, as stories of her $150,000 wardrobe (just when she has called herself a “hockey mom”), McCain staffers calling her a “diva” and “whack job” have emerged. Oh, and she has apparently “gone rogue”, departing from her handlers and script, etc. Even last night, she apparently gave an interview to ABC News in which she stated that she has aspirations for 2012. You know, if this whole Vice President thing doesn’t work out, next week, her pageant-walking and winks may be around for quite a while. Thanks, Sarah.
But let’s not simply trash all of McCain’s missteps –his total lack of message, his poor management style, his advisers like Rick Davis and Randy Scheunemann who have been immune to criticism, his personal unsteadiness. From an organizational standpoint, Obama has done everything that McCain has not. His advisers, especially David Axelrod and David Plouffe, have been especially impressive and focused on getting information out, and making sure that there was outreach in ways that have never been done in presidential politics. Obama has been the 21st century IT candidate, accumulating not only supporters through his website and the Internet, but also deriving a contact list through social networking sites like Facebook and Linkedin, and thus being able to reach many more millions at any moment. That brings attention; that brings money. Who would have thought that a campaign would send out text messages to inform supporters first about whom they chose as Vice President? (Well, that didn’t go completely as planned, but the intent was there.). As a result the Obama campaign has seemed more “together”, more modern, in tune with the way in which we all communicate nowadays and how we tap into information about topics we care about.
In a much-cited front page piece this past weekend, an LA Times reporter that covers the Obama attempted to provide some insight into the candidate and probe a little bit as to what makes the man tick. About the only criticism that the reporter could muster was that perhaps Obama was a bit too scripted and that he didn’t let his guard down. Maybe it would be OK for him to loosen up once in a while. That’s it? Well, this “letting the guard” down was very much on display last night in the Obama commercial, and it emerged rather surprisingly. The effect was very moving. The personal stories that were profiled certainly provided the practical and sensitive backdrop to the various proposals that Obama was describing. But the point was this: everyone could certainly relate to these people. These were not actors simply intoning homilies and slogans. These were real people with real (and maybe tenuous) jobs, but all were people with the same aspirations we all have, and that’s a significant testament to the collective hope they all share. Some cynics may have found some of the stories “sappy and over the top” (thank you, Matt Lauer on the “Today Show” this morning!), but it’s hard to deny that each person profiled was not affecting. We are a country of “optimists”, which the special reminded us at the beginning, and in my mind, this truly is an American ideal. That we are in the economic state we are in, that we are hungry for change, makes this statement all that more poignant. And poignant too was the older Black couple from Sardinia, OH, the retired husband who had to go back to work –an “Associate Salesman” (“I just sell stuff, that’s all”, he says) at Walmart while his wife battles a crippling rheumatoid arthritis and is on 12 medications a day. That’s the face of health care. That’s the look of a weary couple forced to go back to work in order to survive and even protect the home they have lived in for 10 years.
But I found the personal story about Obama to be the most moving, and in this sense, perhaps it is noteworthy that what precious “guard” that is let down seems to grab our attention when compared to the everyday hustle and bustle of presidential politics. How many people were struck by Obama’s phrase last night that “My father, you know I only met him for a month”? Or when he described that he was “probably shaped more by his absence than by his presence”. Or the descriptions of his mother, who made him wake up at 4:30 am to go over his homework? These moving details lead into a discussion of his education plans, but then we revisit his mother, who was felled by cancer, and then a talk about health care and, most movingly, a speech in which he asserts that “My mother never saw her grandchildren. That breaks my heart. You know what also broke my heart was in the last months of her life, she wasn’t just thinking about trying to get well. She was spending time reading insurance forms…the insurance companies were saying maybe there were some pre-existing conditions….” As someone who has some personal experience with parents in these circumstances, this certainly affected me. And so too, I think, did a lot of people last night who were able to see a slightly different side to this candidate.
It’s not just that, as Colin Powell said a couple of weeks back when he endorsed him, that Obama is a “transformative” candidate. Barack Obama represents all that is possible in an America that has lived through a tortured history of racial struggle, of slavery, but also of the ideals of equality that helped found this nation at a time when our Founding Fathers could never have predicted that an African-American man could one day lead this country. It does say much that this man could be elected, and that he is the nominee of one of the major political parties. It also says a lot that his campaign has not made race a focal, or potentially divisive, issue in this campaign. Obama has remained steady, even when the opposition has portrayed him in vicious and desperate ways. It probably suggests that he wants to remain focus, or that the mud-slinging is not the best way to conduct a campaign when you have millions of people who are losing jobs and homes right now. Barack Obama is the right person with the right message, and his candidacy of hope and an optimistic beginning in these desperate times is precisely where this country should go come November 4.