All the stories chronicling the demise of the Barack Obama campaign are premature, no matter what the current polls say. He still has the same assets as when he announced in February to great optimism. And, in the months since, he’s raised a ton of cash and seen the rest of the challengers to Hillary Clinton fall mostly by the wayside. It looks as if he may get the one-on-one challenge he coveted sooner than he expected.
But it’s clear Obama’s campaign has stalled — and not because he’s shied away from attacking Clinton (that would be a huge mistake). Rather, his campaign has made a key strategic blunder that has, in turn, badly affected the candidate’s rhetoric — once considered one of his key assets.
As for that blunder, it first came to light in an April New York Times Magazine profile of Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod. Few, though, seemed to grasp its implication. Axelrod’s approach — and one has to assume Obama’s as well — is “rooted less in issues than in the particulars of his candidate’s life,” the author observed. “For [Axelrod], running campaigns hitched to personality rather than ideology is a way of reclaiming fleeting authenticity.”
That’s an interesting premise, with only one flaw. It rarely works in presidential politics, which is why Obama now finds himself in trouble.
Presidential campaigns are traditionally won by the candidate who can lay out a set of memorable themes that resonate with the electorate. By and large, biography doesn’t matter that much. Otherwise, voters never would have elected one-term Georgia governor Jimmy Carter to lead the nation in 1976, or, in fact, a one-term congressman named Lincoln in 1860. They both won because they offered voters a new direction, which didn’t have all that much to do with what they had or hadn’t done.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a colorful biography out of which political themes can emerge. And character does count, and flows in part from one’s life story. But in the end, it’s not nearly enough to sustain a presidential campaign, even in the age of Oprah-esque self-disclosure. Bill Bradley had a great life story in 2000, and Bob Kerrey was the Obama of 1992, with the superstar bio and, supposedly, the rhetorical skills to match. Neither had much to offer in the way of new ideas or directions, though, and neither candidacy ever blossomed.
Unfortunately, the Obama campaign’s emphasis on a personal story (and it may have been exacerbated by the success of Obama’s autobiography) has set his rhetoric hurtling in exactly the wrong direction. Instead of showing voters where he’d lead them (as he did effectively in his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote), Obama continually tells them how and why he’s the man to lead them. He mistakenly talks as if the election were mostly about him, not the country. Not only does this become boring rather quickly, but it’s also self-indulgent. Like a lot of lawyers and members of his generation, Obama’s speaking style can often be characterized as, “Well, enough about me — what do you think about me?”