Check this: Karl Rove is trying to lead a challenge to Eric Holder’s nomination as AG of the US. I don’t think Rove or any other part of the GOP cares particularly about Eric Holder per se, they care about Holder’s connections to Clintons, who they would like to tie to Obama. It’s an effort to re-inscribe the partisan frame around Obama and his Administration – and points out the risks O took in bringing so many Clinton-types into the fold when building his Administration.
Tag Archives: rhetoric
First of all, I’m increasingly inclined to give my qualified support Thompson for mayor – I don’t know if it was pure election-grandstanding, but it seems like every time he makes a public announcement of some kind, like his workaround of the MTA fare-hike, it’s generally sensible, effective, and conscious of class dynamics in the city (for instance, as Comptroller he got city pension funds to remove their money from companies that privatise formerly public housing in the city).
But that’s beside the point – I think this will be a test case in how well folks other than Obama can use his organizing model in their campaign strategy. While I trust that Blue State won’t apply the Obama model whole-cloth, many of the central elements of the Obama campaign revolved around him specifically, and might not translate well into other campaigns. When someone wins, it always makes their system look better than it probably is, and thevalidity of the organizing model will be need to be tested in a vareity of contexts.
Here are some of the risks I see in adopting the Obama model:
-Looking like an Obama hanger-on: to stick in people’s minds, you need to develop a distinctive personality. The individualist tendancy in American politics asks that politicians be in a way self-made. Trying to ride the coattails too overtly undermines credibility and might hurt the campaign.
-Social Media can hurt too: trying to mobilize folks via twitter/Facebook/etc. can become a conspicuous display of a lack of support as well. Having 50 people on a Facebook group demonstrates weakness in a citywide or statewide campaign. Thompson should be sure that embracing new media will build support among his target constituencies before over embracing the technology.
-You need a good story: Obama mobilized a series of glittering generalities based on his personal story. Thompson needs to develop a central story that reduces to a short-worded theme and three key policy proposals to organize people behind the campaign. One of the clear differences between Obama and Thompson’s site is the lofty quote Obama put on the top of every page. Thompson doesn’t have the same type of cred, or story to get people together.
This excellent cross post to ACLU’s blog by Glen Greenwald shows just how effective Obama was in framing his candidacy as one about ‘issues’ without really stating what those issues are, or where he stands on a great number of them. Greenwald points out the host of questions that remain about just civil liberties even after Obama’s fairly extensive 60 Minutes interview – I think it’s particularly important to note that ‘closing Guantanamo’ could mean a wide variety of things, including some that would be much worse than whatever it is now. The camp provides a visible symbol that you can visit and monitor, but if prisoners are moved to black sites around the world, then everyone will have a much harder time keeping tabs on them. Obama somehow made an end run around actually discussing any of these things, but still managed to berate McCain for avoiding ‘the issues.’
Obama’s ‘O’ logo is one of the most impressive elements of his political identity – it functions as a condensation of Obama’s message, a badge for supporters, a lucrative branding tool, etc. I love this interview with the designer at the NYT, because it shows a more or less face of the campaign, and reveals so much about how electoral politics works these days -
First, it shows the deliberate, calculating side the the campaign, rather than the exuberent, movement-building face. Axelrod and Plouffe deliberate about what logo serves them best, debate the advantages of different ‘O’s and make a calculated decision. No doubt this is why the interview is happening only after the election.
The logo works because it condenses so much meaning. The ‘O’ itself refers to his name, which signifies him as something different, a ‘change’ – Obama has a ‘funny’ name that sets him apart from other candidates and past presidents. The ‘rising sun’ image also connotes change, the lines imply the open feilds and rural areas that supposedly define America. it implies unity (a full circle), and an accessible simplicity that can be molded to fit any number of messages.
The multi-valent iconicity of the ‘O’, and it’s basis in Obama’s biography (both of which the designers read before going to work) reveals the imagistic and narrativized foundations of contemporary politics.
I’m not particularly happy with the idea of Brennan as the head of the CIA – but then again, I’m not particularly OK with the CIA in the first place. Anyways, there’s also a problem with the idiotic rhetoric of ‘opening a debate‘ about the use of torture. I definiately don’t take issue with debates – I’m pleased with the defeat of a challenge to NYU’s Coke ban in a debate, to cite the most recent example – but I’m fairly sure that any ‘national debate’ about torture will look nothing like a productive discussion about torture, or state violence. The terms of the debate will be left up entirely to people like Brennan – not only will he choose what people talk about, but also the forum in which they do it, and the terms in which it is described. The cacaphony of a truely national debate will be reduced to the talking points of a hoarde of ‘national security experts’ and other apologists for the exercise of US military power.
Here’s the point: I don’t think debate is a problem, but in the narrow, imagistic environment that constitutes public discourse, the idea of a ‘debate’ all too often only serves as a fig-leaf to media campaigns meant to justify some pretty fucked up stuff, and I’m not buying it.
Another recommendation: “The Dreadful Genius of the Obama Moment“
A pretty jarring analysis of the numerous problems left unsolved, and the problems created by the Obama election. I’m worried that my own focus on the symbolic/rhetorical elements of politics sometimes distracts from the real material facts of US exceptionalism. We really do have a war on most of the world, with terrifying implications.
I feel very conflicted. On the one hand, I know that no matter how right you are, you have to be able to effectively communicate and organize people for your voice to matter. In the current political environment, trying to take ‘hope’ head-on and out and out deny that people should enjoy Obama’s election feels like political suicide. On the other hand, I know that arguments about ‘effectiveness’ can straight-jacket real dissent, and prevent people from saying what needs to be said about Obama and the violence of the US government.
I guess my real feelings go something like this: I agree with the commenter on the article above that the real alternative is to ask people to hope further. What did we hope for? Was it Rahm Emanuel and a return to the Clinton foreign policy? Or are we really hoping for an end to racism (white supremacy), and something more fundamentally just in the world?
One of my favorite stories about American politics (besides Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72) is about JFK, and his popularity bounce after getting elected, then assasinated. in 1960 Kennedy won a very close election, by about 100,000 votes. But, magically, by the time he was inaugerated as President, 60% or so of Americans told pollsters that they voted for him. Then, after his assasination in 1963, about 80% of people polled said they voted for him. Somone was lying.
Obama won fairly decisively this year, but the same thing is happening: a low to mid 50′s percent win in the popular vote magically turned into a 65% approval rating (acknowledging that people polled is a different group than voters). It shows just how successful Obama was in posturing himself as ‘historic’ in the post-election aftermath, and the popular utility of his personal narrative in winning himself political capital.
The bump demonstrates the very different rhetorical posture Obama must adopt as President, rather than Candidate, and also forecasts the difficulties he might have in re-mobilizing his 3 million or so subscribers. I think Obama’s need to make general, more cautious appeals once in power suggests that his ‘online army’ will perhaps go rogue and begin leading their own campaigns, rather than continuing to rally behind the more pragmatic rhetoric of President Obama.
The second to last refuge of the scoundrel, accusations of being ‘out of touch’ or ‘behind the times’ abound these days, leveled at the UAW/Automakers in Detroit, and legislators unwilling to cut their way out of a crisis in Albany. These appeals work because they’re ungrounded references to general sentiment, and build off the sense that many of our economic problems are insurmountable, or at least wildly difficult. Calling folks ‘out of touch’ not only neatly condenses problems into a soundbite form, it also provides a definate scapegoat who already is in the wrong. In the case of union rules, which is an important part of the Detriot discussion, the accusation of ‘out of touch’-ness typically begins an argument about why workers should get sold out for their bosses ineptness, or why they should lose the right to organize their labor. Really, the argument comes down to this: someone has the bully pullpit, wants to get their way, but doesn’t actually know how to get it.
As I’ve pointed out before, a widespread economic recession (increasingly trending towards depression) predicts a new relationship of consumers to their consumption, with a new eye towards substance as the new style. It may be that the popularity of culture-jamming anti-consumption strategies in recent decades were in reality forced by an economic situation that made consumption so appealing.
Now that consumption is becoming much more conspicuous, the situation might allow a shift towards more explicit challenges to capital, at least temporarily. So, instead of the imagistic tarnish of Nike’s image, the focus might be more on the relationship of workers to Nike CEOs, that shows the owners getting rich while kids get exploited.
The key will be in describing what recovery looks like, as more than a return to prosperity, but also prosperity that allows for mutual shared wealth and collective wellbeing. I think Obama gave one good rhetorical starting point when he described an ownership society as a “you’re on your own” society. The recovery should be about reviving a community, and explicitly calling out those who have grossly profitted off of the American worker.
This post from Pop Matters forecasts some difficulties for the re-emergence of culture jamming as a prime thread of political speech in the new Obama age. The jamming of the 80s and 90s occurred in a time of economic ‘irrational exuberance’ where folks could and would spend big on consumer items. Now, with the downturn, we see a shift back to a utility focus when people purchase goods, where bang for your buck has made a resurgence.
Which is exactly what happened during the election. Obama won on the idea of issues, as much as the issues in particular. Despite never quite talking in depth about what his positions were, Obama hammered McCain for talking about things that weren’t the issues – O maintained the image of dealing with issues without ever really doing the nitty-gritty work of talking about them. (This New Yorker article summarized the campaign operation pretty well, gives you an idea of what I mean)
Generic brands, like Obama, project the image of being image-free, skirting the over the top image-politics of late 90s branding and counter-branding by pretending to be about substance. The trouble folks have with making fun of Obama demonstrates the same principle, where the idea of substance trumps the substance itself.
Arujn Appadurai gets at some really interesting stuff regarding the language of Obama’s election, and its revolutionary potential.
Appadurai calls the feeling of November 4th ‘magic.’ While the language people used to describe Obama on election night was nearly religious, it wasn’t exactly devotional – the hype about Obama-as-Jesus was just that, hype – but his election did represent something special, something a little bit transcendent, beyond what has gone before. Magic implies a sense of the unknown, openness, play and potential.
It is precisely this sense of embracing uncertainty and creative potential that now President-Elect Obama has tried to eliminate since his election. Gone is the euphoric devotion to the man-as-symbol that represents radical change, replaced by the calculating Rahm Emanuel, and the mundanity of press conferences. He needs to pre-emptively tone down the sense of radical change that he developed during the campaign as to avoid any more commitments to leaps of faith on the part of his supporters – he needs them to become disciplined, calculating types that embrace him wholeheartedly as the lesser of many evils, and no longer as a transcendent force.
But that sense of magic he fostered for however many months might be precisely the energy that could be harnessed for other types of radical change.
I love the rush to get newspapers today. It’s like no one feels like it happened until they have something in their hands that proves it really occurred. History seems to have disappeared from our lifetimes – even September 11th disappeared into a bureaucratic squabble and the discredited political movement led by George Bush. The last time ‘something happened’ was the fall of the Soviet Union. Until today, it seems.
Obama ran an ephemeral campaign, one of airy aspirations and digital connections. I think there’s still a sense that it might all disappear, until we take pictures, record video, and grab mementos. The newspaper is a classic trope in what we know is history – think Dewey Defeats Truman – and folks need to grab on to something to feel like history happened. History happens in black and white.
Obama’s campaign ran on a series of wildly effective symbols and phrases that drove the campaign to the electoral and political heights we see today. Watching returns and his acceptance speech last night, you could see how he drew on an immensely powerful set of tropes and symbols used to define the nation and his role in it.
The next important election I see is the New York City Mayoral campaign. I think it’s wildly important to get Mayor Bloomberg out of office ASAP, and I want to work to make it happen.
Any opposition to Bloomberg doubtless will try to pivot off of the Obama Hope and Change messages, but it seems like cities lack the same type of empty-ish symbolic tools that made his message possible. That should be the first task of any mayor going in to this campaign, seeing the changed look and feel of politics: develop new symbols – both visual and rhetorical – that represent a new city, a new sense of hope, and a united front against the narrow interests that have come to control this city
I think Glen Greenwald does some of the best writing on American politics online – yesterday he took Joe Biden to task for referring to Barack Obama as ‘our future Commander in Chief,’ a phrase with strong authoritarian overtones considering that Obama refuses to even discuss the US policy of executive-led torture and voted to authorize wiretapping.
“Commander in Chief” does not mean “our chief who commands us” – it has a legal context, which Greenwald points out, is ‘Commander in Chief of the Armed forces of the US.’ All it means is that people in the armed forces have to listen to him when he says ‘jump.’
The surging use of the phrase has more to do with rhetoric than the law. It sounds so good in the mouth, marshals so much authority, even if it means almost nothing. Ditto for the effort to label US detainees “enemy combatants,” a term that John Yoo & Co. just sort of pulled out of thin air to run interference for torturing people to death. Both provide words for the President to parrot on the teevee while lawyers work overtime in the boring annals of our legal system, trying to authorize unacceptable bullshit. They effectively stave off real criticism of the legal implications of the President’s actions while the folks in the executive branch do the dirty work of undermining democracy.
Just stumbled upon this New York Times blog post about Obama as John Milton’s Jesus – the key observation is that Obama’s rhetorical success this campaign came from his ability to present a unified message front to the public, without really saying anything. And by that, I don’t mean ‘empty words,’ but rather saying nothing – I remember reading after the third debate that McCain’s campaign sent out 8 different memos to the press the evening after the debate, while Obama sent none. He just left McCain to talk himself in and out of news cycles.
Obama’s stoic blankness is the cornerstone of his campaign, because it allows people to read into him whatever they want. The campaign in fact embraced this, and made the whole election about what other people want out of Obama, pitching the whole affair as a ‘movement’ for people to make the change they need.
The terrific uplifting vagueness of it all has the benefit of activating unheard of numbers of people into politics, the problem is what to do with them when they come down from the high. I previously suggested avoiding the Obama subject, and I still believe that keeping him out of the picture might be useful, but I’d like to suggest another strategy, of ‘identity correction.’ Rather than calling out Obama for being ‘false change,’ I think folks should extend the sense of ownership people feel for him, and point out the nasty stuff he does (it will come) and call it Hope.
Still in Iraq 2 years from now? Well, that’s what Obama folks were hoping for right? (better if addressed in the 2nd person) Obama has always been more center than left, even if he doesn’t volunteer the information. When he does, stick it back on the people that supported him as one of them.
I’ve already made comparisons between Obama and JFK, then Obama and Bush. But Ron Reagan Jr.’s Obama endorsement makes me thing that perhaps the best comparison is between Obama and Reagan. Check the 1984 Reagan classic “Morning Again in America”
Then check the visual iconography of Signs of Hope and Change (one of the best political videos I’ve ever seen)
Similarities run deep: both use good communication as both a tool and a selling point for themselves as candidates, both have been able to use media to rhetorically outflank their opponents. The other key comparison is in the type of ideological shifts both initiated. Reagan was the king of good stories and the earnest look – he used these tools to set new ideological co-ordinates for understanding government and America’s role in the world. The welfare queen was a thing of myth, but she existed vividly in the public mind because of Ron’s good stories; and those stories served as the basis of how people understood government spending during the Reagan years. Obama is doing some of the same types of things with new defenses of government spending to support job creation, and a re-assessment of how government tax cuts should work. Reagan was wildly effective at starting a rich vs. poor class war, it remains to be seen if Obama can incite anything comparable in the opposite direction.
McCain and the GOP have been rolling hard with their TV spots lately – the last few have been very effective, and if they started with this stuff earlier in the campaign, they had a chance. The last 3 or 4 have been focused on single messages, to the point, and way good
First: “I am Joe the Plumber” – nice everyman type ad, does a good job of subtly otherizing Obama
Second: ‘Storm’ – a good mobile metaphor for experience that gives off a lot of associated meanings, but remains focused clean and simple on the experience issue
Third – “Ladies and Gentleman” – Takes Joe Biden’s words and flips them against Obama – a good move when Biden was selected to bolster Obama’s foreign policy credentials. Also makes a pretty good visual argument about an externally dangerous world.
…at least in how the ‘opposition party’ treats them. The “epic frenzy of hate” digby describes resembles at least in passing the manic anti-Bush rhetoric of many folks on the left-of-center-but-still-center. (Just like Tom DeLay is anti-Socialist but ran a big-government GOP, these folks are anti-war but vote Democratic)
Just think of the fervor poured into Bush bashing for the past 8 years: making fun of his way of speak, his relationship to Dick Cheney, his intelligence, his cowboy persona, his weird interpersonal relationships with foreign leaders – all of it mirrors back the right’s escalating obsession with Obama.
Both sides of the Manichean two party system accuse the other of treason in different forms, both are probably wrong, or at least seriously misled into thinking that in a choice between the lesser of two evils, the other side really truly was evil. The crypto-racial dynamics of the current GOP backlash should not be ignored, but for the most part it follows the same script as the Democratic reaction to Bush, trying to pigeonhole the other side’s identity politics strategy.
If the liberal left’s experience the past four years is any guide, folks on the Right better find a new strategy quick if they want to get anywhere. For folks on the left, they need to find a new way to talk about change that doesn’t walk right into Obama’s half-hearted liberal trap for the optimistic.