Sunday, September 30, 2012

Subduing the Self-Assertion: The changed campaign presentation of President Obama in 2012

Extreme campaign tactics are regarded as a source of conflict in our election process.  Self-assertion is a widely employed tool through which candidates present themselves as the redeemer of a particular society.  Because contemporary American politics are pervaded by self-assertion, an effective way to analyze the device would seem to be analyzing a specific example.  Potentially the source of great contrast, I will make an effort to demonstrate the way the 2012 Obama campaign differs from its 2008 version in its projection of the candidate.  In this discussion, I’m interested in evaluating self-assertion as a widely used political tactic that depicts the politician as a redeemer, not in characterizing any party or candidate as inappropriately self-righteous.  From the outset I would like to make clear, I don’t necessarily consider self-assertion an inappropriate trait in politicians and chose President Obama’s campaign simply because his 2008 efforts seem to have centered on the bold claim that one man could bring “hope” to a nation.

Perhaps it is not appropriate to categorically characterize Obama’s ad campaign in 2008 self-assertive.  Obama, despite having confidence in the “change” he could bring, himself, seemed to show a certain amount of restraint when it came to making hubrisitic or overly specific claims.  The tone projected in ads, however, whether through designed graphics or impassioned supporters, directed voters to believe in Obama’s ability to lead in a manner that transcended partisanship and other political obstacles.  Throughout this post I will often refer to certain 2008 Obama campaign tactics as self-assertive.  In doing so, however, I recognize that the prophetic projection of Obama does not always derive from the man himself, but rather is a complex product of his unique abilities, confidence, and campaign leaders’ marketing decisions.

An iconic self-assertive-appearing image of Obama from the 2008 campaign features an impressionist head shot of the candidate, his red-white-and-blue head held high and eyes fixed on a distant point.  Below the man “hope” is spelled out in all caps.  

By many interpretations, there is little ambiguity in this illustration.  The campaign presents Obama, the man, as “hope” itself for the nation.  The poster has been mocked by certain conservatives, some even comparing the poster’s concept to that of historic dictators including Hitler and Stalin.  Although an extended comparison would certainly be inappropriate, the image itself, abstract but unambiguous in its design, does seem to reflect the same sense of self-assertion that characterizes propaganda from these foreign regimes.  

Obama’s rhetoric in 2008, while not rampantly self-assertive, often worked in concert with more bold campaign projections of the candidate.  In a 2008 commercial Obama says, “The hope a city kid with a funny name who believes that American has a place for him too: the audacity of hope”.  This rhetoric, humble by certain interpretations, still seems to carry a spirit of individual transcendence, particularly when spoken with Obama’s now iconic vocal quality.  

         If we assume that these sorts of tactics in the 2008 presidential election were effective, considering the strong support Obama garnered from “new” voters, it seems logical to analyze, at a more basic level, why self-assertion worked in attracting supporters. Initially, it is appropriate to note the circumstances in which Obama’s campaign asserted him as a redeemer.  That is to say, it may be necessary to consider the notion of certain political climates lending themselves to this sort of candidate projection more than others.  2008, perhaps, set the perfect stage for the Democrats to tout themselves and their eloquent, unconventional presidential candidate as the American redeemer.  Disillusionment following the severe economic downturn and growing, widespread dissatisfaction with the Republican President Bush prepped particular segments of the electorate to respond passionately to extreme presentations of a candidate who promised to bring “change”.  

There might also be ideological factors that make liberal candidates more well positioned to campaign on the basis of redemption.  At the risk of exaggerating, stereotyping, or misinterpreting party ideologies, one might characterize our political spectrum in this way:  Whereas conservatives tend to speak about creating a country that is a refined, more perfect version of its former self, liberals seem to emphasize the newfangledness of their ideas, more likely to speak about the ushering in of a “new age”.  Redeem, which denotes compensating for faults, carries lofty connotations that may interface more nicely with a more progressive ideology, associated with the contemporary democratic party.  In this way, one could begin to argue the choice to portray Obama as prophetic was partially a product of his political ideologies.

Whatever the specific factors that allowed for the Obama campaign’s successful employment of self-assertion in 2008, it seems things have changed in the current political environment.  The outwardly lofty slogans of “hope” and “change” in 2008 have been replaced with the more subdued “forward” in 2012.  Examples of a less bold Obama campaign strategy abound.  After a first term of mixed success, the President’s campaign is taking a less assertive approach when it comes to the depiction of Obama as a redeemer.  Ads have taken a more subdued tone, one that talks about the work already done as the result of slow but sure effort and the work left to do in gradual terms.  In the 2008 election one could argue voters were made to believe an Obama presidency would see immediate and drastic change in our country.  Recent Obama ads and rhetoric present a successful candidate, but one with realistic goals.  For example, in a December 2011 interview with 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft, Obama had this to say regarding economic recovery in the United States:  “Reversing structural problems in our economy that have been building up for two decades, that was going to take time. It was going to take more than a year. It was going to take more than two years. It was going to take more than one term. Probably takes more than one president.” 60 Minutes Clip Obama’s comments, while likely not a direct contradiction to his 2008 rhetoric, are recognizably more restrained.  

One of the more illustrative examples of the Obama campaign’s amended presentation (and one of the more capitalized by Republicans) was a statement the President made on a domestic Spanish-language network.  He asserts, “The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside.” Interview Clip  For a candidate whose supporters in 2008 seemed confident in his ability to unite Washington and the nation, Obama’s comments here demonstrate the political humility he’s acquired over the course of his first term in office. 

Self-assertion, while perhaps especially pronounced in the 2008 Obama campaign, is by no means an isolated phenomenon.  One will find both traces and trends of self-assertion in campaigns big and small, Republican and Democratic, conservative and liberal.  Like all manifestations of extremism, however, we will likely never fully understand the way in which it works to garner candidate support and, perhaps most importantly, the extent to which it is a healthy aspect of our election process.  

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