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Some Keys to Obama’s Success

Obama in Austin, TX, earlier this year. Photo by Matt Wright.
Obama in Austin, TX, earlier this year. Photo by Matt Wright.

The meteoric rise of Barack Obama is already the stuff of mythology. In his own words, he is “the skinny kid with the funny name” who came out of nowhere (aka the Illinois State Senate) to become President of the United States; the “half-Kenyan, half-Kansan” whose story could happen “only in America.” The feel-good quality of that tale is difficult to deny. But it doesn’t account for the incredible savvy that Obama displayed throughout his campaign. Over the course of twenty months (or more), he made nearly all the right moves. Here is a handful.

1. The Audacious Decision.

Upon publication of The Audacity of Hope in October of 2006, it was obvious that Senator Obama had his eyes on the greatest political prize. As the Times’ Michiko Kakutani noted at the time, “Portions of the volume read like outtakes from a stump speech, and the bulk of it is devoted to laying out Mr. Obama’s policy positions on a host of issues, from education to health care to the war in Iraq.” After the Democrats regained control of Congress in the November midterms, speculation on whether Obama—whose book had shot to the top of the Times best-seller list—would enter the 2008 race began to mount.

Obama was then faced with a dilemma: He either could challenge the House of Clinton, or bide his time until 2012 or 2016. His status as a “rock star,” as pundits now called him, cut both ways. Anything short of a place on the ticket stood to diminish his celebrity. At the same time, why would he want to hang around the Senate, where every vote can come back to haunt a candidate’s future? To make the run, he needed to know that he would have the support of some big-time Democratic Party backers who were not in the Clinton camp. George Soros had been an early supporter of Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign, and he would become a key player in the initial stages of the Illinois senator’s presidential bid. Oprah had already helped launch the success of The Audacity of Hope, and David Geffen came on-board soon after Obama declared his candidacy. Future historians can sort out the details. But knowing that he would have some serious high-rollers on his side surely helped Obama make his fateful decision.

2. The message is the message.

Well before he threw his hat into the ring, Obama and his chief strategist, David Axelrod, had foreseen that 2008 would be a “change election.” What they meant was that even more than a shift in the party in power, voters would crave a “change in the way politics gets done in Washington.” In The Audacity of Hope, Obama repeatedly stressed his desire for bipartisanship. And in his YouTube campaign announcement in mid-January of 2007, he said that it “was not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most. It’s the smallness of our politics.” After diagnosing the condition, Obama provided the remedy via his mantra of “change.” Though already a senator, as a relative newcomer to Washington, he could still carry the mantle of an outsider. And most important, Obama’s biracial background makes it impossible to look at him and not see at least the image of “change.” By contrast, McCain looked and acted old, and his insipid campaign slogan— “Country First”—sounded like yesteryear, too.

3. The organizing strategy.

Obama’s campaign clearly perfected the use of the Internet as a vehicle for communication, organizing, and prolific fundraising. Hillary essentially blamed MoveOn for her defeat, comparing the group to a “gusher” of both money and volunteers who were crucial in caucus states during the primaries (she also correctly attributed the hostility of the activist base of the party to her stance on the war). But even before MoveOn officially endorsed him (in late January of 2008), Obama and his campaign had already relied on networks of young, tech-savvy organizers. As Zack Exley outlined in the Huffington Post in late August of 2007, over one thousand field organizers had attended three-day “Camp Obama” training sessions that summer. “Inside the Obama campaign,” Exley wrote, “an eclectic team of field organizers is attempting something that has long been considered impossible: building a precinct-level field organization large enough to affect the outcome of Super Tuesday.” By any standard, this became a pretty damn successful long-range game plan. But a few things needed to happen in the next five months.

4. Black Like Me.

After Obama won Iowa, a victory largely attributable to his organizing strategy, Hillary made her comeback in New Hampshire. The Clinton camp then made its worst decision of the campaign: via surrogates and eventually Bill, team Clinton tried to portray Obama as the “black candidate.” In response, during the South Carolina debate, Obama made one of his wisest moves. Instead of trying to pass himself off as “post-racial,” he suddenly became very black. When asked during the debate about the notion that Bill Clinton was somehow the “first black president,” Obama replied that he would have to “investigate more of Bill’s dancing abilities, you know, and some of this other stuff before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother.” The combination of the Clintons’ missteps and Obama’s savvy responses meant that the black vote was his for keeps, which was critical to his success in the primaries. And black turnout would propel him forward throughout the general election.

5. Back on Track.

Once he secured the nomination in June, Obama made a few notable mistakes, usurping the presidential seal, unnecessarily calling for the expansion of the death penalty, and—most important—supporting right-wing measures including the expansion of warrantless wiretapping (with telecom immunity) and offshore drilling. These moves tarnished the “change” image of his campaign and, consequently, his poll numbers began to drop. But when he took the stage in Denver—and took the fight directly to McCain—he renewed the resolve of the party base and alerted others watching that he stood for something different. Because McCain followed that speech the next day by announcing his Palin pick, Obama didn’t get much of a bounce. But the speech laid the groundwork for September, when amidst the chaos, Obama showed that he could provide both leadership and change—while McCain seemed out of control and Palin’s bubble burst.

6. The Politics of Unity.

Unlike his opponents, who tried to sow huge divisions (e.g., between small-town America and urban America), Obama almost never demonized anyone. He expressed regret concerning his “bitterness” comment regarding white working-class voters—although it remains a pretty accurate critique. And his campaign did put forth one commercial that made fun of McCain for not using a computer, which could be read as a swipe at senior citizens. But for the most part, his campaign was about “we,” “us,” “togetherness,” and so on. His bigger goal was to eliminate the race card from American politics. Obama’s triumph was obviously a huge step in that direction. Yet once in office, he may well find that the right has not fully exorcised its racial demons.

7. A New Political Language.

Obama can be credited for contributing words like distraction, inartful, and my personal favorite of his, imperfect (e.g., “I am an imperfect vessel for your hopes and dreams,” as he often said early in the campaign) to American political discourse. Unlike the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Obama will never play the role of the “dumb guy.” Regardless of what happens from here on out, Obama’s victory is a triumph for intellectual life everywhere. For the first time in nearly a century, a professor is in the White House. The last one, Woodrow Wilson, wrote favorably about the KKK, screened Birth of a Nation in the White House, and segregated the civil service. What a difference one century can make.


Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2008

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