2007/04/01

Obama's imagemaker

I meant to have a moratorium on anti-Obama posts, but this article was too good to pass up. It's about David Axelrod, Obama's imagemaker and one of his closest political advisers. Axelrod is the kind of guy who
loves man-on-the-street interviews, and while digging through the tape the week before, he found one he did with a young Hispanic guy. "He gives you a — a sense of hope," the young man says, squinting past the camera, swaying slightly. "Uh, at a time when, you know, things in this country are not going so well." It’s a good message for Obama, and a good messenger, but what Axelrod likes are the stutters, the verbal hiccups: "That kind of authenticity is how you cut through."
In other words, Axelrod is in the business of manufacturing authenticity. He is also a longtime Daley aide: as a former alderman puts it, "David Axelrod’s mostly been visible in Chicago in the last decade as Daley’s public relations strategist and the guy who goes on television to defend Daley from charges of corruption". There's nothing "new" or transcendant about the company that Obama keeps.

Axelrod has also been closely involved in many other high-profile Democratic campaigns, including John Edwards's heavy-on-rhetoric, light-on-policy 2004 presidential campaign and world-class asshole Rahm Emanuel's successful 2006 campaign to retake the House for Democrats. He has a "postideological approach, and his campaigns are rooted less in issues than in the particulars of his candidate’s life. For him, running campaigns hitched to personality rather than ideology is a way of reclaiming fleeting authenticity."

Progressives should cringe at this sort of thing. It's anti-democratic, because it elevates the image of the politician over what government actually does and what should be the focus of elections, which is making policy. And it cements the Democratic Party's longtime tendency to offer nothing but symbols, and ideologically empty symbols at that.

If we care about health care, foreign policy, global warming, or any other issue, we should only support those leaders who are willing to argue for progressive policies in public. Otherwise, when it comes time to pass the law (should Obama ever propose a progressive law), the power of entrenched interests will easily overcome the ethereal "new politics" offered by the image/politician. As Obama's campaign continues to move forward almost exclusively on his "optimism", it's increasingly clear that Obama and Axelrod are hoping to avoid such a divisive thing as concrete policies.

Last week the Tribune ran a piece on Obama's experience as a community organizer on the South Side. This is the only thing in Obama's all-important biography that would give me any hope in him as president. But it's hard to know if Obama decided to become an organizer because he really believed in it, or because he was positioning himself for a career in politics (in his days as an organizer, he was already telling people that he wanted to be mayor of Chicago). In a revealing story, we hear that during his 2004 Senate campaign,
Obama, microphone in hand, introduc[ed] himself to a small group of voters at a coffeehouse on Chicago’s North Side; when the candidate told them about his work in the early 1990s as a community organizer, there was a spontaneous, sustained applause. [Axelrod says,] "You know, we hadn’t thought that was an important part of his bio, but people really responded to the fact that Barack gave up corporate job offers to work in the community."
The fact that Obama sees so little significance in his only real grassroots work tells you something. So does the fact that he respects people so little that he runs his campaign as a naked attempt to manipulate voters with his biography. The sad thing is that this manipulation is working so well.

4 comments:

Eric said...

I would also like to see more substance from all of the campaigns. Unfortunately, in an electorate divided on so many issues, I think there's some truth to the notion that the only way to unite a majority long enough to win office is to avoid having any opinions on the campaign trail. I'd rather have someone I think I agree with elected than someone I know I disagree with, as a general rule.

Jake said...

i'm not sure the electorate is really so divided. there is now a solid majority against the war. as i posted about before, half the population supports universal health care even if their premiums went up substantially (and costs would actually go down if it were done right). an overwhelming majority believes global warming is happening and that humans are at least in part causing it, and over half want more government regulation and investment to address it. the voters are ahead of the politicians on all these issues, which are also the central issues in the campaign.

however, turning public opinion into support for concrete policies that will address these concerns is impossible as long as the candidates avoid the issues.

let's say obama wins. he comes into office with a mandate for what, exactly? optimism? is that going to get us good policies? no, it'll lead to increased public cynicism as everyone finally realizes that obama's "new politics" was a chimera, and those interests blocking change will easily win.

let's say edwards wins. he comes into office with a mandate for clear, concrete, progressive policies. so not only do we know he has those policies, he also starts work with the political capital that might allow him to pass them into law. is edwards unelectable because he has those policies? given that clear majorities support his basic orientation, i would say no.

Eric said...

You're right that there are in principle majorities on the progressive side of a lot of the key issues in the campaign (although that's questionable in the cases of abortion and gay rights, I think). Problem is, Republicans are very good at reminding people relentlessly about the money costs of social programs, and the support for a lot of them drops substantially in surveys as soon as a price tag is attached.

In all honesty, though, I don't mean to be an Obama defender. As I said before, I really shouldn't even be following things as closely as I am, if I ever want to graduate. I personally suspect that Obama's massive support, at the expense of the more openly progressive Edwards, is a manifestation of liberal guilt over racism. I'd probably get shot for saying that publicly, though.

patrick said...

Obama's now openly touting his experience as a community organizer and a law professor, trying to head off allegations of "Washington inexperience". I don't get why he never talks about his time in state government, which would be a far more direct answer to that objection.

In any case, it's been (sadly) amusing to observe him repeatedly wriggle out of providing any specifics on a health-care plan. Most recently, I read his response that he wants to take "significant steps toward universal coverage", but it would be premature to provide specifics because we first need to elect a Congress that will actually pass such legislation. Uh...huh?