Law in Contemporary Society

Obama: The Embodiment of a Message

-- By AnjaliBhat - Edited by JamieGottlieb?

Barack Obama was widely perceived as a uniquely inspirational candidate, one who appealed to moderates and independents but also to an idealistic base of people enraged about foreign policy, torture, civil liberties and poverty. His campaign seemed to give people permission to talk about hope, change and justice in a sincere and non-ironic fashion. Among his supporters, the belief that Obama was not an ordinary politician seemed prevalent. As a candidate, Obama himself seemed to embody the promise of solution. Obama portrayed himself to his base as a liberal uniquely gifted in communicating with those who disagree with him, but also committed to his own principles. With the political and moral capital gained from a steadfast refusal to fall in line with majority support for the Iraq invasion, Obama positioned himself as someone upon whom voters could place their hopes for transcending past mistakes, from Iraq to the economy to racism. His strength as a candidate was deeply rooted in his strength as a communicator, and he conveyed his message to voters so successfully that he effectively came to embody it.

Although certain policies set forth by President Obama have not met the expectations raised during the campaign, many Obama believers have, at least initially, reacted with defensiveness rather than outrage. However, the ability to communicate successfully with the public – the hallmark of the Obama campaign – is in some ways a weakness of the Obama administration.

Obama's actions and some reactions to them

Although many of his acts as President have fulfilled campaign expectations (signing executive orders closing Guantanamo and ending CIA secret prisons, mandating that interrogations follow the Army Field Manual, and ending the global gag rule), Obama’s base has defended even those presidential actions that they would have scorned during Bush’s tenure. For instance, there has been little criticism expressed regarding the Obama administration’s affirmation of the Bush policy that detainees in Afghanistan have no legal right to challenge their detention.

Additionally, the retention of rendition as a counterterrorism tool has been defended, at least initially. Civil libertarian Obama-supporting lawyers like Scott Horton and Glenn Greenwald have reacted by mistakenly accusing the LA Times of confusing “extraordinary rendition” with just “rendition” (Horton) and claiming that the article is symptomatic of an attempt on the part of Bush loyalists, intelligence officers, the establishment media and nihilists to get people to lose faith in Obama (Greenwald). In addition, Greenwald posed a somewhat contrived hypothetical to defend rendition (a possible argument, but I wonder if Greenwald would have made it while Bush was president), while Horton confined himself to emphasizing that extraordinary rendition was much worse. Both had more reasoned later responses, but the initial one was anger and defensiveness: similar to reactions I have gotten when bringing this up to people in political conversations.

Why this reaction?

But why the gut response of defense, rather than dispassionate evaluation? After all, a few mistaken Obama administration policies would not negate the argument that he is still much better than the alternatives.

Obama inspired his base to trust and believe in him, despite our cultural tendency towards projecting an aura of cool apathy and the liberal value for skeptical questioning. This was partly because of the factors touched on in Judith Warner's “Dreaming of the Obamas” article: he's charismatic, high-achieving, has a fascinating biography and seems to have an exciting, even sexy, current life. He could get away with appealing to idealism because he was so obviously cool, and he thereby gave his supporters “permission” to care and dream as well. Furthermore, he is extremely intelligent and gives the impression of someone who is interested in ideas for their own sake. Because Obama is so intellectual, believing in him does not see like a stupid or mindless thing to do. Therefore, for many among his more fervent supporters, Obama provided a unique opportunity to believe in a leader without sacrificing self-respect.

What Next?

Inevitably, the passage of time will erode the visceral defensive reaction of even those Obama supporters who have made the greatest psychological investment in their faith in Obama. Indeed, the Obama administration has already come under nearly universal fire for its management of the economic crisis over the past months. Tellingly, these critiques focus in particular upon the administration’s communication of its economic policies. Here the greatest strength of the campaign Obama – the ability to communicate a message to voters so effectively that he effectively embodied it – has become a weakness of the Obama administration. Obama has been criticized for choosing ineffective spokespeople; certainly his choices here (as elsewhere in his administration) could have been better. And yet the problem extends beyond the individuals chosen. The personal bond established between Obama and the public – partly a function of his charisma and partly a result of the peculiar political circumstances of 2008 – made his election the phenomenon that it became but also undermined the ability of his administration (which is necessarily multi-faced and multi-vocal) to communicate in a manner that matched expectations.

For the Obama administration, the solution to this problem must be twofold. First, the administration must simply place greater emphasis on selecting spokespeople best up to the daunting task of following the act of the election Obama. Second, the administration must wait for time to pass; the passage of time will increase the public’s emotional distance from the election-candidate Obama, and thus decrease the now-inevitable disappointment in the ability of the administrative Obama team to communicate.

  • I'm not sure what the theory behind this edit was. It wasn't to improve the language and leave the author's conceptions in place; on the other hand, the replacement of the original structure and content, while it seems to follow a principle of not being repugnant to the letter of the prior version, doesn't actually conform to the point of view from which you started.

  • If you were going to give yourself editorial license to rethink the draft, it seems to me that the direction was either towards an assessment of the problems as the Administration sees them, which I was trying to set up in my own comments, or as an analysis of how organized opposition can attract the merely disillusioned. Otherwise you are trying to present an organized, rationalized view of a segment of opinion that is least subject to rationalization, and which is—frankly—of no political importance because the progressives feeling defensive and at the same time disillusioned have nowhere else to turn and can safely be ignored for another two years or so.


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r3 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:33:37 - IanSullivan
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