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Building Brand Obama

The Tribune completed its "Making of a Candidate" series this week with an examination of how Barack Obama and his political consultants decided to craft the Obama brand and fix his politics around it. So much for authenticity.

Let's take a look.

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"One evening in February 2005, in a four-hour meeting stoked by pepperoni pizza and grand ambition, Sen. Barack Obama and his senior advisers crafted a strategy to fit the Obama 'brand,'" the Trib reports.

"Yet even in those early days [of the U.S. Senate term he had just won], Obama and his advisers were thinking ahead. Some called it the '2010-2012-2016' plan: a potential bid for the governor or re-election to the Senate in 2010, followed by a bid for the White House as soon as 2012 or, if not, 2016.

"The way to get there, they decided, was by carefully building a record that matched the brand identity: Obama as unifier and consensus builder, an almost postpolitical leader."

So the brand came first.

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The brand is all he's got. It's not as if he's running for president based on a distinguished career as an Illinois legislator. As much as Obama tried to stay above the fray in the cesspool of Springfield, it's not as if he was leading the charge against corruption and for a new kind of hopeful politics (like, ironically, his senatorial successor Peter Fitzgerald did both in Springfield and Congress).

I've casually run into a handful of folks who knew Obama in his Springfield days who uniformly describe him as MIA as a state legislator, not one for the heavy lifting, overly ambitious, and inattentive to his district.

And he certainly isn't running for president based on his short, contradictory but largely immemorable tenure as a United States senator.

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Take the war. Obama on the campaign trail likes to boast of his early opposition to the Iraq misadventure. And Obama was right - just like, say, Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential campaign. (There is little to no evidence that I have found that Obama ever spoke in favor of Dean.)

Yet, Obama entered the U.S. Senate with the nation's rapt attention (well, the media's anyway). And instead of leading on the war, he receded into the background, mum as a church mouse.

"Even before the national mood was turning on Iraq, Obama was a critic of the war," the Trib writes, " but for most of the time in the Senate he was not a strong voice of opposition."

Perhaps that was Obama being "mindful," in his own words, "of the importance of establishing good relationships with my colleagues early on."

The Trib puts it kindly. "Obama the candidate for U.S. Senate spoke out forcefully against the Iraq war. For most of his tenure in Washington, though, Obama the U.S. senator has not been a moving force on Iraq.

"He left it to others to lead public opinion. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) emerged as the strongest voices against the war. Those critics all spoke out before Obama gave his first major policy speech on the war - 11 months after he took office."

Obama was building his brand while soldiers were dying.

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"Several advisers said that during that time Obama wrestled with how to proceed," the Trib reports. "In keeping with the pattern of his political career, he moved cautiously."

He had to factor in public opinion, the advice of his consultants, his political ambitions, and how best to protect the brand. Leading in the anti-war movement was not in the cards.

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"Only after Obama announced his presidential exploratory committee did he introduce legislation this January that sets a date for withdrawal of U.S. combat troops," the Trib reports. "By then the high-profile, bipartisan Iraq Study Group also had endorsed a deadline for troops to leave.

"In May he voted against continued funding of the war, after Bush vetoed a funding package that included a timetable for withdrawal by March 31, 2008.

"Obama defended his reluctance to call for withdrawal during most of his first year in the Senate.

"'At the time, my view was that the [Iraqi] government was still forming and it would be important to not give the impression, prior to the formation of that government, that we were already on the way out,' Obama said."

Some folks thought - and say now - that that was exactly the kind of pressure that should be put on the new Iraqi government.

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"Now, what changed?" Obama continued. "We have the breaking out of a complete civil war, at least a significant low-grade civil war."

Yes, nobody saw that coming.

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Obama himself has been conscious of the hype, even as he has helped fuel it. He told the Tribune that early in his U.S. Senate career he was bent on "making sure that people didn't think I bought into all the hype."

He also famously told reporters at the 2006 Gridiron Dinner: "Most of all, I want to thank you for all the generous advance coverage you've given me in anticipation of a successful career. When I actually do something, we'll let you know."

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"Obama made it an early priority to fit in at the institution [of the U.S. Senate]," the Trib reports, "reflected in his choice of a chief of staff, Peter Rouse, a veteran Senate insider who had been the top aide for departing Democratic leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Rouse crafted the memo that formed the basis of the conversation at the strategy session that February night at a Democratic Party office near the Capitol."

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Even having Obama sit through lengthy committee meetings to from start to finish to show diligence adn deference was part of the image-building.

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"To some liberals, the proposal was a no-brainer: a ceiling of 30 percent on interest rates for credit cards and other consumer debt," the Trib writes. "And as he left his office to vote on it, Obama planned to support the measure, which was being considered as an amendment to a major overhaul of the nation's bankruptcy laws.

"But when the amendment came up for a vote, Obama was standing next to Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), the senior Democrat on the banking committee and the leader of those opposing the landmark bill, which would make it harder for Americans to get rid of debt.

"'You know, this is probably not a smart amendment for us to vote for,' Obama recalled Sarbanes telling him. 'Thirty percent is sort of a random number.'

"Obama joined Sarbanes in voting against the amendment . . . There remains no federal ceiling on credit card interest rates."

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"Within his own party, Obama gained the confidence of the leadership and soon took on a role as the Democrats' spokesman on ethics reform."

Again, an exercise in brand-building - similar to Emil Jones putting Obama out front on ethics legislation in Springfield.

Not that any of it really took with Obama.

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"In keeping with the original game plan, staff members spent nights and weekends scouring the chapters [of drafts of The Audacity of Hope) as they rolled in, looking for potential political pitfalls - a vetting committee Obama didn't have when he published his earlier, more provocative memoir," the Trib writes, seeming to forget its earlier reporting that showed that memoir to be a work of fiction.

Audacity, too, would become fiction, if only by omission.

"For instance," the Trib writes, "when Obama was seeking to name someone as the epitome of left-leaning politics, an aide urged him to use a House member instead of a Senate colleague. So the book names now-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, though Obama's voting record is similar to hers."

The Audacity of Inauthencity.

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The Trib story comes with a sidebar about Obama's endorsements of Mayor Daley, Todd Stroger, Alexi Giannoulias and Dorothy Tillman that seem to be at odds with his clean government rhetoric.

Obama's responses are wholly unsatisfactory. The fact that Giannoulias and Tillman, for example, were early supporters of his only reveals a pol more interested in loyalty than the public interest - you know, a hack. His support of Tillman came at the expense of a true reform candidate (and ultimate winner), Pat Dowell.

And the Trib neglects to include Joe Lieberman anywhere in its reporting; Obama raised money for Lieberman in his race against anti-war candidate Ned Lamont.

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In fact, the Tribune series on the whole portrays Obama as a politician not wholly dedicated to truth and transparency, and hardly one who has practiced a new kind of politics nor accomplished anything near what might be expected in a presidential candidate.

As valuable as the Tribune series is, though, it comes too late. Why wasn't Obama vetted sooner?

The image of Obama is fixed in the public mind; now media revelations that cut across that image are fighting an uphill battle, no matter how much more accurately they may portray the man. I hear it all the time: stop picking on him. Or "This is just what they did to Gore."

The advisors who built the Obama brand have successfully brought it to market, aided and abetted by a starstruck media that never seems to learn its lessons. It has altered the shape of the race, enabling Obama to raise enough gobloads of money to keep out other candidates such as Tom Vilsack and Evan Byah, and to set up well-intended folks for heartbreak.

I saw Ben Affleck being interviewed by Wolf Blitzer the other day. Affleck is an Obama man. Doesn't know much about him, Affleck said, but what he knows he likes. The brand is flying off the shelves. But is the product defective?

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Check out the rest of the Beachwood's unique Barack Obama coverage in Obamathon.



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Posted on June 13, 2007


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