Election 2008 Foreign Policy Obama Politics

The Rebranding of America: Barack Obama


[digg-reddit-me]The Obama backlash is beginning, but slowly.  Two weeks ago we learned that Barack Obama is not Jesus; that’s a fair point to make. Earlier today David Brooks, who was a prominent conservative supporter of Mr. Obama warned that “the magic fades”.  Mr. Brooks ends on this ambiguously positive note:

The victims of O.C.S. struggle against Obama-myopia, or the inability to see beyond Election Day. But here’s the fascinating thing: They still like him. They know that most of his hope-mongering is vaporous. They know that he knows it’s vaporous.

But the fact that they can share this dream still means something. After the magic fades and reality sets in, they still know something about his soul, and he knows something about theirs. They figure that any new president is going to face gigantic obstacles. At least this candidate seems likely to want to head in the right direction. Obama’s hype comes from exaggerating his powers and his virtues, not faking them.

Those afflicted with O.C.S. are no longer as moved by his perorations. The fever passes. But some invisible connection seems to persist.

Mr. Brooks column hits Mr. Obama a bit harder in the opening.  Kevin Drum over at the Washington Monthly also sees storm clouds on the Obama horizon.  Matt Yglesias also sees this coming.  Paul Krugman, the partisan hack and gloomy prognosticator of recessions, also sees the backlash brewing.  Though no one can describe Mr. Krugman as fair-minded regarding Mr Obama.  As one of my next posts will demonstrate, columnists more ideologically conservative than David Brooks have recently taken to hitting Mr. Obama.  It’s also worth noting that each of these liberals only cites one example.  But I sense it coming too – because the media must be getting bored; because Mr. Obama is not as open to the media as Senator John McCain; because as Mr. Obama succeeds, some of his less grounded supporters, and some of those who are emotionally invested in the race for cheap thrills, are beginning to reach a critical mass.

But I think Mr. Brooks’ point holds: that even after the comedown, voters are still left with an emotional connection.  More important from my perspective is that there are many who support Mr. Obama for reasons other than emotional thrills.

Aside from predictions of what Mr. Obama could do, and policy debates, and historical parallels, there is another set of clear realistic reasons to favor Mr. Obama.

As Roger Cohen wrote yesterday:

The fight between Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination is increasingly portrayed as one between romantics and realists.

But a realistic view of Obama would be that he is best placed to seize and shape a new world of such possibilities. He has the youth, the global background, the ability to move people, and the demonstrated talent for reaching across lines of division, even those etched in black and white.

The Nation’s Christopher Hayes made this argument for Mr. Obama regarding domestic policy.

Andrew Sullivan in his powerful December piece in the Atlantic Monthly explained how Mr. Obama’s sheer presence would “rebrand America”:

Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it’s central to an effective war strategy. The war on Islamist terror, after all, is two-pronged: a function of both hard power and soft power. We have seen the potential of hard power in removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. We have also seen its inherent weaknesses in Iraq, and its profound limitations in winning a long war against radical Islam. The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

Patrick Ruffini in a critical but generally objective piece concludes that Mr. Obama’s “brand” has great potential:

The end result is that great brands are fungible. They can be all things to all people. The branding approach liberates Obama to be the candidate of the MoveOn wing and of national unity. That’s not a criticism. It is a compliment. Now we’ll see if it stands up in the land beyond the energized core, in the land of 50% plus one nationally, where evangelism alone is not enough.

Obama literalists may read back chapter and verse on his policy initiatives, but let’s be real here. Those aren’t the reasons for his success. Morover, they were never intended to be the underpinnings of the Obama candidacy. Millions of “HOPE” and “CHANGE” placards later, I think that’s fairly clear.

There is something fluffy and nice and fake about the Obama hullabaloo.  But there is something real too.  And even a pragmatist can see the value in what Mr. Obama’s brand has been able to accomplish so far.

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