By Ray LeMoine
Obama’s Closing Strategy? Focus on Narrative and Attacks
David Axelrod pic by Chip Somedivilla
David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, is running the finest political campaign of my lifetime. The campaign just raised $150 million in a month, bringing Obama’s total to $600 million, the most ever. Nothing’s been more important in 2008 than “the narrative,” or specifically, the candidates’ “personal narratives.” And no one is better at spinning a “great story” about a candidate than Axelrod, a Chicago Tribune journalist turned ad man cum strategist. Born in New York, Axelrod’s conception of politics comes down to selling the candidate in the final weeks with a barrage of advertising. As TNR reported yesterday (in an ass-kissng, exhaustive profile):
Unlike many consultants, who impose their own messages and buzzwords on candidates–so much so that their clients all begin to sound alike–Axelrod is known for crafting campaigns that are centered on, and uniquely suited to, his candidates’ biographies.
And TNR points out Axelrod’s especially good at selling black candidates, like Deval Patrick when he ran for Mass Governor:
Like most Axelrod campaigns, Patrick’s focused more on the candidate’s biography than policy: Patrick’s most effective TV ad dwelled on his life story–“raised by a single mother,” “worked his way up from poverty to Harvard Law”–while giving short shrift to, as it described them, Patrick’s “honest ideas to lift our state.”
With literally hundreds of millions on hand, Axelrod’s getting to apply his methods virtually uncontested (Obama’s outspending McCain on ads by 4-1).
But the emphasis on personal narrative is not really a good thing, since it removes issues in favor of “great stories.” As Joan Didion writes this week in the NYRB:
For at least some months it had been clear that we were living in a different America, one that had moved from feeling rich to feeling poor. Many had seen a mandate for political change. Yet in the end the old notes had been struck, the old language used. The prospect for any given figure had been evaluated, now as before, by his or her “story.” She has “a wonderful story” we had heard about Condoleezza Rice during her 2005 confirmation hearings. “We all admire her story.” “I think she’s formidable,” Senator Biden said about Governor Palin a few weeks ago. “She has a great story. She has a great family.”
Senator Biden himself was said to have “a great story,” the one that revolved around the death of his first wife and child and taking the train from Washington to Wilmington to be with his surviving children. Senator McCain, everyone agreed, had “a great story.” Now as then, the “story” worked to “humanize” the figure under discussion, which is to say to downplay his or her potential for trouble. Condoleezza Rice’s “story,” for example, had come down to her “doing an excellent job as provost of Stanford” (this had kept getting mentioned, as if everyone at Fox News had come straight off the provost beat) and being “an accomplished concert pianist.”
But in the same issue of the Review, Paul Krugman notes that in the last few weeks Obama’s shifted from rhetoric and narrative to attack:
But all of that has changed in the past few weeks. Part of what has changed is, of course, the intensification of the financial crisis—the fall of Lehman, the panic in the markets, and the Bush administration’s admission that a huge government bailout was necessary—which has focused the electorate’s mind. But some credit should also be given to Obama, who responded to his sagging poll numbers by becoming much more effective at delivering the Democratic economic message. These days, Obama doesn’t try to place blame equally on right and left, he denounces “an economic philosophy that says we should give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else,” and describes the crisis as “a final verdict on this failed philosophy.” He sounds, in other words, a lot like Bill Clinton in 1992.
And that’s a good thing.So the election will be a referendum on conservative economic policies after all. And while nothing in politics is certain, the odds are that this referendum will indeed produce a big victory for Obama and his party. What they’ll do with that victory is another question, but for now, at least, the prospects for a new New Deal are looking bright again.
In the TNR piece, Axelrod’s people and the story’s writer, Jason Zengerle, deny that they’re using attacks to take down McCain:
“There are certain things we’re not going to say in ads,” explains John Del Cecato, a partner in Axelrod’s firm who is a media adviser to Obama’s campaign. “I think sometimes people don’t understand our strategy: They think it’s either go for the jugular or you’re treating them with kid gloves. There is an in-between.”
Again and again, the ads that the Obama campaign has unveiled at the race’s most critical moments–on the eve of the Iowa caucus, in the aftermath of the global financial meltdown–have featured the candidate talking in an informal manner directly to the camera, much like John Street did in Philadelphia. By doing so, Obama has tried to show that he’s relatable and reasonable–not the radical figure white voters may have read about on the Internet and nothing like their worst images of black politicians.
Not so fast guys. Anyone watching TV the last few days, at least here in NY, where we see the prime time buys—NFL, MLB, MSNBC Hardball, etc—knows Obama’s biggest commercial is a direct attack on McCain, tieing him to Bush “90% of the time.” It’s a bold and brutal ad, effective too.
So, which is it? Is Obama using the final to weeks to sell himself, as TNR and Axelrod would like you to believe, or are they going on the offensive as Krugman and reality suggest? According to Tribune reporter David Mendell’s excellent biography, Obama: Promise to Power, Axelrod closes his campaigns with a mix of narrative and attack. Mendell considers both Axelrod and Obama to be at their best in the last two weeks of a campaign. It should be fun to watch it unfold on a national stage…especially in the form of a 30-minute prime time special to air on all the major networks October 29th.