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Obama: Campaigner-in-Chief

By Elvin Lim


Barack Obama proved this week that his understanding of public opinion and how timing can be used to massage the media’s storyline is head-and-shoulders above any campaigner we have known in modern history. Mitt Romney cannot begin to overestimate the gap between what Obama enacts by intuition and what he can barely perform by imitation.

On last Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” Joe Biden came out in support of same-sex marriage, an alleged gaffe that precipitated Obama’s announcement this week that his own thinking on the issue has evolved to the same effect. This then allowed Obama to tout his new position to the Hollywood crowd from whom he was raising $15 million on Thursday evening (that’s $13k per second of speech). Next morning, Obama wakes up to a story breaking about Mitt Romney bullying a presumptively gay classmate while in high school. Romney, for his part, is going to deliver the Commencement address at Liberty University this weekend to appeal to Christian conservatives. It is, believe it not, exactly in sync with the temporal frame and media storyline the Obama campaign has quite consciously created.

President Barack Obama addresses Indiana residents during a town halll style meeting at Concord High School February 9, 2009 in Elkhart, Indiana.

What a way to launch the Obama re-election campaign. The campaign opens with one message: this is the Obama Democrats voted for in 2008. Who would have thought that the politics of Hope would actually make a come-back after three years of compromises and disillusion? Hope is what excites young people, and with it, it will not be the record Obama will be running on, but an America liberals can be proud of. Because this is a state-by-state race to 270, Obama understands that the youth vote matters in North Carolina, Iowa, and Colorado — states that offer him an alternate route to victory other than the traditional way of Florida and Ohio.

The political dexterity of the Obama campaign in responding to changes on the ground can be seen in how they have turned the culture wars against Republicans. In 2004, the Bush administration used the culture war to rally the conservative base on the same-sex marriage issue, when a dozen or so states put constitutional amendments to define traditional marriage on the ballot. Today, Barack Obama is hoisting with that petard. Same-sex marriage is a losing issue for Republicans because while a majority of Republicans oppose same-sex marriage, a super-majority of Democrats support same-sex marriage. Culture wars are waged because their effect is asymmetric, and this time, it is benefiting the Democrats. Republicans cannot in good faith argue that the culture war is a distraction from real economic issues that Americans ought to be talking about because they were the first to wage it.

In just two electoral cycles since 2004, the Republican candidate who ought to be spending his time talking about the lackluster economy is being forced to address allegations about his actions as a high school kid. If there is a science to politics, Team Obama obviously understands its laws and equations.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.

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