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More about Senator Obama

So, Your Humble Blogger has been trying to clarify some of the things I have been feeling about Barack Obama and his campaign. And I think this might help.

One of the tricks of advertising is that, instead of selling your product, you can get people to want to be the type of person who buys your product. Coke, you see, adds life; the ad company associates Coke drinking with a variety of behaviors, conditions and attitudes, and hopes that people who want to be associated with those attitudes will buy Coke. The problem with this is that it doesn’t particularly work. If you don’t like the taste of Coke, you aren’t going to buy it and drink it just because the ads show beautiful people enjoying it.

This doesn’t just come from advertisements, and it doesn’t just work positively. I’ve mentioned before that Toyota has trouble convincing people that buying the Prius doesn’t make them into Prius-people, which would entail carrying a bulk lentils in a hemp bag. On the other side, buying an SUV doesn’t automatically make you vote Republican, or does it? The kind of person who buys books at an independent bookstore—you know that type of person, right? Is that you? Are you the kind of person that watches The Wire or the kind of person that doesn’t know what everybody is talking about? Are you the kind of person that buys recycled paper? Clothes, nightclubs, careers. Residential neighborhoods. Are you the kind of person who lives where you live, who eats what you eat, who lives your lifestyle? Do you want to be?

In politics, I’ve experienced the negative side of this more often. You know the kind of person who voted for John Kerry. Volvo, latte, blah, blah, blah. Nobody wanted to be like that. Particularly the people who voted for Senator Kerry, of course, but there it is, people who drink Coca-Cola aren’t happy and beautiful athletes. And my idea of a person who voted for Our Only President doesn’t have much to do with any actual voters I know.

Now, what I think the Barack Obama campaign has done, and done very well, is to create in my mind and I think in a lot of people’s minds a positive idea of the Barack Obama voter. The Barack Obama voter, part of the Barack Obama movement, is young, smart, good-hearted, hopeful, not overly partisan, and (importantly) not racist. Or sexist, either.

My idea of a John Edwards voter is that he or she is a Democratic leftist, pro-union, angry, maybe a trifle bitter, well-informed, with fairly specific policy desires. Or maybe that’s just me. And my idea of a Hillary Clinton voter is someone older, closer to the Establishment, more cynical, and somewhat inclined to settle.

Please understand: I am not saying that these ideas are accurate. They are not. They are stories I have absorbed about the election. What I am saying is that those stories about the election do have an effect on how people vote. And they have an effect on more than just how we vote. I think they have an effect on how we live.

One thing that a great president can do with the bully pulpit (and wouldn’t it be great if some more recent president had come up with some description of the persuasive power of the office, now that bully is no longer used in any positive sense at all? In fact, from now on, I’m no longer using bully pulpit. From now on, the persuasive power of the presidency will be referred to as the bitchin’ pulpit. Oh, wait, er, no, it won’t.) is to call us to our better selves, to give us an idea of the Americans we want to be, and ask us to be those Americans. I think it’s possible that Barack Obama could do that. I think that he could, possibly, if he is elected, change our ideas of what we are, and what politics is, in a way that would have real effects on how we carry out our daily lives.

Because if he makes us want to be smart, young (at heart), good-hearted, and all that, and we actually make ourselves like that, then, well, that’s an improvement, isn’t it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


My hope for Obama's campaign is that it marks the beginning of what I, from my union years, would describe as an ongoing organizing conversation, in which an organizer gradually persuades a member (or potential member) of the union to join the union's struggle by starting with what the member is willing to accept about the nature of the struggle and willing to do in support of that struggle, and shows the member by doing with the member whatever the member is willing to do, so the member will learn that doing more is necessary, that what the union is asking of her is not "extreme" but reasonable and indeed pragmatic. A majority of those who can vote in Democratic primaries do not, so far, appear ready to identify themselves with John Edwards as people who will _fight_ for change. They are ready for change, and they can tell the difference between candidates who are _for_ change (Obama and Edwards) and everybody else (with Hillary Clinton representing the best of the status quo "Business Democrat" tradition and the Republican candidates representing the status quo mess that seven long years of Our Only President and his enablers have created). They will need an ongoing organizing conversation to see that they need to fight, and that, if they do fight together, they can win.

The spirit of reconciliation of which Obama speaks will not be enough to reform or remove the entrenched corporate and political criminals who are destroying America and the world. People are going to need to work hard for change, face a lot of ugly truths about corruption in American business and government, and live differently, if they are going to effect the changes they hope for. To Obama' s message, I say, "sorry, not good enough" and find what I am looking for in Edwards. However, _if_ Obama truly pursues change, and uses his popular appeal and his gifts as a speaker to help people take the necessary step from supporting change to fighting for change, he could build a coalition strong enough to overcome the entrenched criminal interests. I am not certain that John Edwards will be capable of doing this (though it would be very interesting to see what he could accomplish if the media would actually report on the substance of his campaign).

If Obama (as Bill Clinton did, and this was his great failing as politician) seeks rather to sustain his personal popularity by continually seeking "the vital center" and shying away from hard struggles in favor of conciliation with criminals (granted their criminality was not so blatantly obvious 15 years ago), then he may be a successful president but not leave the enduring legacy of social and political justice and environmental sustainability that we desperately need. I trust Obama more than I did Bill Clinton (Obama's work as a civil rights lawyer and a community organizer is reassuring) but I trust John Edwards more than I trust Barack Obama.

Bitchin pulpit
Bitchin pulpit
I ran over your country
Bitchin pulpit
Bitchin pulpit
Now it makes me money

My daddy bought me a bitchin pulpit
And a military to match
So if I happen to invade you
It's only for the cash

I got some ol' dictator hanged
I was only playing fair
But I wasn't blamed for it
Because it's legal there

Bitchin pulpit
Bitchin pulpit
Oil is really swell
Bitchin pulpit
Bitchin pulpit
Watch my wallet swell

When I walk past Congress
They all spit and cuss
Unless they're Republicans
'Cause I'm one of us

So you better get out of my way
With your oversight
'Cause I've got a bitchin pulpit
And let other people fight

Bitchin pulpit
Bitchin pulpit
Hey man where you headed
Bitchin pulpit
Bitchin pulpit
I'm drunk on unleaded

-- The Dead Liberals

Matthew, what a touching tribute to the Milkmen!

V, it might just be that Obama is taking a lesson from the Reagan years. Reagan could say he was for or against something, without being specific about how he would govern. For instance, he was against helmet laws, since they were a restriction on "personal freedom." The statement didn't bother with any messy details regarding "personal safety," or highway deaths, or how many unhelmeted bikers per 1,000 were having their medical bills paid by the public for surviving a high-speed lobotomy. He was just vague enough to allow people to project their personal hopes on some remark he made during the '80 and '84 campaigns.

Hopefully Obama won't go down the same paths that RWR did, but I had previously gotten the impression that Obama was deliberately vague to the point of being wishy-washy. THE AUDACITY OF HOPE is chock-full of formula statements about how one side is wrong when they say "x," while the other side is wrong when they say "y." In essence, he's triangulating without actually using that term. These formulations may be reassuring to some people, but I was hoping for a candidate with a real fire in his or her belly, you know?

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