On Opening Night, the Obama Campaign Goes Warm and Fuzzy

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The first evening of the Democratic convention was Warm and Fuzzy Night. There were a host of speeches over several hours. Veterans, workers, elected officials of different colors and genders, and common folks addressed the thousands of delegates in Denver’s Pepsi Center. But none of that mattered. The two main prime-time features were a tribute to Senator Ted Kennedy, who is fighting brain cancer, and Michelle-fest, a celebration of Barack Obama’s wife. After a film highlighting Kennedy’s long political career and his passion for sailing, the liberal lion of the Senate delivered a rousing speech declaring “the dream lives on.” It was an emotional moment–and an authentic one. Minutes later, the convention turned to its next order of business: demonstrating to voters that Michelle Obama is a fine woman, who loves her fine family, and who would make a fine first lady. Throughout the night, there was not much bashing of the most unpopular president in recent decades and little smacking of John McCain.

The iconification of Michelle Obama–daughter, wife, mother and professional–was perhaps an obligatory exercise. Narrating a film about her daughter, Michelle Obama’s mother revealed that Michelle is a “wonderful, caring mother” who has been able to “find a balance between a career and being a mom.” In the film, Barack Obama noted how “kindhearted” her deceased father had been. Michelle and Barack cutely recalled their early days of courtship. (She resisted; he persisted.) Then her older brother came on stage and shared the facts that she woke him up early on Christmas mornings, played piano to calm him down before big games in high school, and memorized every episode of The Brady Bunch.

Next, Michelle delivered a speech in which she noted that her personal story–and that of her husband–shows “that the American dream endures.” Noting how hard so many Americans work to provide for their kids, she said, “That is why I love this country.”

She handled the speech well, and it was full of passages that seemed genuinely heartfelt. She also praised Senator Hillary Clinton for having put “those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling,” graciously using the disputed popular vote count promoted by the Clinton campaign during the primaries. But a question is, was all this I-love-my-family-and-country stuff necessary? The answer might be yes. Clearly, the Obama campaign was following recent political tradition: going Hallmark (or Lifetime) at the convention. (“I blame Ronald Reagan for this,” lamented Salon’s Walter Shapiro in the press section.) But in the case of the Obamas–due to their race, his unusual pedigree, and her comment about having not been proud of America (and the trashing she has received on right-wing talk radio)–it seemed that Team Obama had decided to lay it on awfully thick. The Obama campaign press release promoting her brother’s speech noted he would “focus on values that shape her.”

Political experts routinely maintain that voters’ perceptions of politicians’ values greatly influence how they vote. And that’s probably especially true for those voters who pay less attention to the details of political races (such as the policy positions of the candidates) and who are, consequently, more driven by impressions. In other words, the undecided voters who decide elections. After the speech, Republican strategist Michael Murphy told me that he believed Michelle Obama had succeeded in “breaking down the wall” between her and some voters. But, he added, “I would have wanted more family talk in the speech and less candidate-y stuff about policies.” But despite all the warmth she generated–and her speech was capped with a touching appearance of the two Obama daughters who spoke to their father through a video hookup–there was something demeaning about the whole exercise. At the Republican convention next week, will Cindy McCain have to prove she loves her kids and her country?

While the Obamas’ wonderful family values were placed on full display, no major speakers of the night walloped Bush or McCain. Afterward, several political journalists and strategists wondered if the Obama campaign, while effectively defining Michelle and Barack as American and loving as anyone, had squandered an opening-night opportunity to define the election as a chance to say no to Bush and to another pro-war Republican with sordid lobbyist ties and few fresh ideas about changing the nation’s economic course.

The Obama camp says that the assaults on Bush and McCain are coming. But Tuesday night will be dominated (subsumed?) by Senator Hillary Clinton’s speech, which in terms of media attention will overwhelm former Virginia Governor Mark Warner’s keynote address. Will Clinton be an attack dog during her Big Moment? That seems unlikely. Does that mean that there won’t be a major, full-throated smack-down of Bush and McCain until Senator Joe Biden’s speech on the third night of the four-day convention? That might not be soon enough. Already among the politerati in Denver there’s talk of a “Kerry-like” convention, a reference to the Kerry campaign’s decision in 2004 to not go all-out on the Bush-bashing at his convention.

Since entering the race, Obama has talked about lifting politics up and transcending the ugly muck of traditional campaigning. But that has not stopped the other side. On the same day that the Obama campaign was sprucing up Michelle’s values for popular consumption, the Texas Republican Party released an ad that showed Obama’s nice home in Chicago and a picture of his half-brother in Kenya standing by a shanty. The explicit argument of the ad was that Obama says he wants to help American families but does nothing to help his own. The implicit message: he’s BLACK and his brother is an AFRICAN. In the weeks ahead, the Obama camp may well face a blitz of negative attacks that could make the Swift Boat assault against John Kerry look like a day at the beach.

Can warm-and-fuzzy beat mean-and-nasty-and-racist? Though the Democrats’ first night went well according to the plan, Obama and his campaign did not display the toughness and steeliness that will be required in the weeks ahead. The conventional wisdom is that this presidential contest is less about McCain, a well-known politician, than it is about Obama, a less known politician. That may be true. But to succeed in November the Obama campaign must do what it can to persuade voters that McCain would be a disastrous choice for the United States. The convention is the place to make that case. Obama now has three nights in which to do so.

Photo from flickr user barackobamadotcom used under a Creative Commons license.


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