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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Barack Obama's Nebulous and Narcissistic Theme Problem

Way back at the beginning of the primary season I hypothesized that Hillary Clinton had a theme problem. That is that Hillary Clinton wasn't giving people a reason to vote for her. Ironically enough, Hillary since found her footing and she has used the them that she is a fighter quite effectively. In fact, it was when this message was finally effectively used that Hillary started to win primaries.

Now, Barack Obama has never had such a problem. From the first moment of his campaign, he has given the folks many good reasons why they should vote for him. He was for the "politics of hope", for uniting the country, for being above politics, and for being the outsider that would change Washington D.C.

His problem was never coming up with solid themes for why the voters should vote for him. Rather, he created nebulous and narcissistic themes that were open to interpretation and easy to expose. Ronald Reagan also once created themes for his campaign. The difference is that he highlighted what was right with America and merely became the agent of those themes. Obama makes his themes essentially that he is right for America. Whereas Reagan focused on things like peace through strength, less government, lower taxes, and less intrusion to spawn the innovative spirit that defines America. Obama believes he is the one to unite us, to rise above politics, and the one outsider that can change Washington.

All of these things sounded good and well as long as he could make a plethora of speeches in which he repeated these themes over and over. Unfortunately for Obama, the Presidential campaign is significantly more complicated than that. It took a while and many people had already been converted, but eventually the reality of the campaign began to poke holes in all of these themes.

The first salvo was his wife proclaiming that his campaign was the first time in her adult life that she had been proud of America. Her cynical statement didn't offer much of a backdrop for such hopeful themes. Some people started to question if everything Obama was saying was nothing more than nonsense.

Things really came crashing down with the revelations that his reverend, Jeremiah Wright, was a bigot, racist, and America hater. How could he stay in such a divisive church if he was promising to bring us all together some said? His landmark speech on race answered many questions on this issue at least temporarily.

Then, his comments in San Francisco, anything but hopeful and uniting, put further dents in many of his themes. Furthermore, the rigors of a tough and bitter campaign has called into question how someone who claims to be so hopeful can run such a negative campaign. The Republicans have also been out there to point out that while he claims to be a uniter he's never actually accomplished anything of substance that has united folks.

Then, his pastor reappeared. Wright's performance at the National Press Club was so over the top and ridiculous, that Obama was left with no choice but to totally disown Wright. This was something he initially didn't do in his landmark speech. Of course, opponents were quick to point out that nothing Wright said at the National Press Club wasn't said previously by him. A recent poll said nearly 60% of Americans believed that Obama disowned Wright strictly for political expediency. But wait, didn't Obama say he was going to rise above politics?

The statement is absurd of course on its face. Whenever I hear a politician proclaim to rise above politics, I think of the story of the snake. The snake comes up to the man and bites him. The man looks at the snake and the snake responds "what did you think I was going to do, I am a snake". Barack Obama is a politician. He can't rise above what he is anymore than a snake can stop biting the first thing it gets a hold of.

Now, some might say that his gaffes did him in. An arguement could be made that the themes were good and they could have worked (and frankly still might). In my opinion, those thoughts would be wrong. The gaffes merely exposed the nonsense of the themes. They were bound to be exposed sooner or later. They are the sort of things that every politician says. For whatever reason, a large part of the electorate believed it and maybe Obama started believing his own hype as a result. Those idealized views were never going to last. Reality usually takes care of such high minded rhetoric. Sooner or later reality would set in and that's exactly what happened.

George Bush also spent the better part of his campaign proclaiming he would unite the country, and then the Democrats spent the next seven years making sure that would never happen. What exactly will the Republicans try to do to Obama? Nancy Pelosi also initially proclaimed that her Congress would unite the country and then quickly moved onto other themes when that became inconvenient. That's the way it goes for all his themes. Someone somewhere proclaimed everything Obama has and we believed them until they failed to live up to expectations that were impossible. The difference is most other politicians found something else to stand for.

All of these themes sound great as long as you never have to put any meat behind them. As long as all they are is a part of a stump speech the themes are great. Get past the stump speech and find yourself in the rough and tumble world of politics and suddenly those themes get exposed quickly as nothing more than fraud.

It is as yet unclear just how much Obama's themes have been exposed. He gained a loyal and significant following before anyone had a real chance to challenge him. Yet, it is clear that any skilled politician can drive a Mack truck through every theme Obama has created. There are six months until we vote and that's how long his opponents will have to pick apart every theme and show that the emperor really has no clothes. If his opponents fail, it will be entire their fault because Obama has set them up for nothing but success. The success that comes from exposing another's narcissism and vagueness. Had Obama created something of substance it would be difficult to expose, but proclaiming that you are the one to rise above politics is like the snake proclaiming they aren't going to bite you.

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