Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What's Wrong With the Obama Campaign?

So, what is wrong with Obama's campaign? Why has he not be able to gain traction? Why has he plateaued, or even lost ground recently in some polls? Is it that he is too "intellectual"? Is it that he is glib? Is it the Clinton/Establishment machine steam-rolling along? Is it his so-called inexperience? Is it too much focus on Iowa? Is it his unwillingness to attack Hillary directly and consistently? Is it that "he isn't black enough"? Is it the media annointing Hillary the inevitable nominee four months before the first primary or caucus? Is it something else? Or, is nothing wrong and he is doing quite well, thank you very much, given how far he's come in such a short time?

If you do think something is wrong with Obama's campaign, what is it?

If Barack called you and asked your advice to get his campaign back on track, what would you suggest? Or, is it hopeless?

I have many ideas, but one of the things I'd do first is come up with a better way to talk about and frame Obama's vision. So far, he has spoken consistently, but vaguely, about being the candidate of "change," whatever that is. At some point, he's got to put more flesh on dem bones. Obama has also put out a scattershot of "important policy speeches," many of which, in fact, contain good ideas. But, from the voter's point of view, there has been little coherence to these major speeches or the policies he advocates. Too often, these "major policy speeches" seem defensive, reactionary or, more recently, desperate. He needs to find a visionary phrase that encapsualtes his politic. He needs to be able to offer a brief, but compelling, articulation of the basic values that animate his political vision and which are captured in that visionary political catch-phrase. And, finally, he needs to have an extremely clear, bullet-point list of the "6 planks" (or however many) in this visionary new politic. The policy planks flow from the values that the candidate has laid out as the animating principles of his/her campaign. It needs to be straight, to the point, clear and memorable. There needs to be a framework within which voters can understand, situate, or make sense of the candidate and her/his ideas.

So, for example, I think Obama needs to come up with a slogan, like "the New Deal," or "the Great Society." The Republicans are particularly good at this symbolic aspect of political communication: "No Child Left Behind," the "USA PATRIOT Act," or, hell, even the "Contract With America." I suggest something like "a new American democracy" for Obama. Then, riffing off of that tag-line, he needs to articulate the values that underlie this "new democracy": renewal of the constitutional balance of power between the branches of the government; reaffirmation of due process and democratic oversight of all political institutions; a renewed commitment to diplomacy and a foreign policy based firmly on a respect for human rights, self-determination, and international mutuality; the belief that all people everywhere deserve a free and fair and equal voice in the decisions that affect their lives; a belief that government is not inherently good or bad (that is a conservative bogey-man), but that it depends on who controls it and to what end it is put; a belief that there needs to be a rational balance, or negotiation, between the needs of a dynamic, creative economy and those of the broader community and environment, and that such a view is not "socialistic," or "anti-American," but rational, sane, and compassionate.

And, then, flowing from these basic values, he needs to come up with his boom-boom-boom, 6-plank (or however many)policy platform:

Plank One: "a New American Democracy": full public financing of all campaigns; a national motor-voter registration; basic national voting rights standards, including state of the art machines in each district which employ computer technology, but are also backed by a paper trail; establishment of a national voting holiday; eliminate the electoral college (let the will of the people be expressed simply and directly); an Attorney general who respects the constitution

Plank Two: "a New American Diplomacy": a covenant which articulates a balance between national security and civl liberties, the need for secrecy along with democratic oversight, and renewed commitment to diplomacy and a foreign policy based firmly in a respect for human rights, self-determination, and international mutuality; immediate withdrawl from Iraq, period

Plank Three: "a New American Economy": a national living wage; targeted tax breaks for environmentally-friendly, sustainable new technologies, business models and industries; massive public investment in over-coming urban and rural poverty; reassertion of progressiveness in tax policy (those with more should pay more, those with less should pay less)

Plank Four: "a New American Education": merit pay for teachers; move away from obsession with testing and toward a model that encourages creative teaching and learning, and even experimentation; encourage states to move away from property taxes as the primary vehicle to fund local education systems

Plank Five: "a New American Environmentalism": "the problem of the 21 century is the problem of the environemnt!" ...the greatest challenge to humanity at the dawn of the 21st century is to find a way to live in greater balance with the natural world, to become better stewards, and to avert the environmental catastrophe that appears increasingly imminent... here is how we should start: tax incentives for ecologically friendly business practices and home practices; tough environmental standards with strict enforcement by a truly independent regulatory apparatus; massive public investment in a "Manhattan Project" for alternative energy sources; straight talk about the need to reduce our consumption of material things

Plank Six: "a New American Health System": universal, single-payer health care. period. no bullshit on this one.

This is off the cuff, so it's not polished or anything, but you catch my drift, I hope... He needs to package himself and present his ideas in a more compelling way. This might seem fairly fluffy to you, but in politics it really matters.


  1. From the David Axelrod interview in the NYT Magazine, it is clear that the campaign by design doesn't want to say anything that might offend anyone.


    I saw Obama on Travis Smiley last week. I really liked him, but he made a big deal about appealing to all and being closed to none.

    He is running as a blank slate. You project what you'd like to see (and I like what you project); others project what they like.

    Politics and governing should be about choosing sides. I worry about those who avoid doing this (not just Obama).

  2. I'm with you, TJ. For instance, Obama has gotten a little mileage out of the "I'm the candidate of change" line, but there comes a time when you need to put some flesh on dem bones. And, yes, you need to stake out terrain and stand firm on it. He better shift strategies soon, or else...

    ... time keeps on slipping, slipping, into the future...

    Barack, the time has come to REALLY enter the fray.

  3. I agree. If you compare what you wrote to what is under "Issues" on his campaign website, he does not clearly articulate what his stance is. Does he still consider his campaign to be in the phase where they are going out and listening to the American public before they clearly take policy stances? Or is that supposed to have ended? His platform (if it can be called that) consists of vague generalizations and, sometimes, lengthy quotes from speeches he has given. Clearly identifiable stances (bullet points!) are definitely needed. Have you submitted these ideas on his website?


  4. No, I haven't submitted the idea. If his high-paid team has no clue about how to package and articulate a coherent campaign message, he is in a heap of trouble. (smile)

    That said, it IS hard for him to get his message(s) out through the din of the Establishment media, Fox News and the pundocracy. I saw him speak in Iowa a couple of months back when he was getting hammered for comments about going into Iraq. The event I saw was a "major policy speech" on foerign policy. It was quite good, clear-headed and rational. Yet, half the press corps at the event was snoozing and on the news that night all you got was a couple of out-of-context quotes that actually implied very different points than the ones he actually made. Once the "frame" is set by whoever, it is hard to budge. So, my point here is that he has a tough job ahead because much is arrayed against him, but there are things his campaign can control and they need to do those things better...

    What other things might he do?

    Is the "experience" argument compelling to you? I think his response about "judgement" being more important is a good one, but the experience/inexperience thing seems to have stuck.

  5. I think Patrick's "If his high-paid team has no clue about how to package and articulate a coherent campaign message, he is in a heap of trouble. (smile)" is important.

    How many of us bright and interested individuals spent 2000 and 2004 on the sidelines cringing at the campaigns waged by the high paid and losing teams, yet again in 2008 we have the same people (or people with the same resaumes) running things again.

    The netroots was supposed to empower people from outside the professional political circles. I was never quite sure how this was going to happen (besides some fundraising and a little issue stuff).

    In many instances it all looks like meet the new boss, same as the old boss, with boggers now insiders and making the same, lame insider choices and collecting the same large checks.

    Don't know what to do but mention it. Makes me feel pretty disfranchised.