Obama and JFK – More than Meets the Eye

Obama doesn’t interest me that much as a candidate, but I think he gives off symbolic sparks that are really fascinating.  As the first black candidate to make it past the primaries, he receives a lot of attention as a symbol (racism is always about symbolic meaning making, turning skin into something more), but I think there’s more to it.

I finally finished reading Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, and it reminded me of the Obama- JFK analogy, which I think deserves more (critical) attention.  What set me off was the prolific tweaking of John McCain’s poor internet skillz, a focus of internet blogs in particular.  The JFK comes in to the picture with the now classic 1960 presidential debates, between Kennedy and Nixon.

The conventional wisdom was that the debates turned the tide for Kennedy because of his television appearance – the television audience believed Kennedy won the debates, those listening on radio thought Nixon bested JFK.  In the same way, Obama embraces the internet aesthetic in a way John McCain doesn’t – for better or worse.

I think the twistup over McCain’s stupid ads proves the point – the original intent of the ad, got lost in the fray of detailed analysis on blogs (perhaps in some cases reflexive television shows, but I won’t name any), cutting apart the ad into a million pieces then about each one.  The point is this: instead of  undermining the Obama-fervor, which is a very salient tactic, a very cinematic ad –  full of Moses and subtle Hitler analogies – turned into a YouTube ad, where folks got the chance to argue about it, turning it back around into an argument for rallying the troops again.  It took the attention off more flip-flops (offshore oil anyone?), and put the attention on the scourge that is McCain.

The McCain campaign seems to forget that bloggers are force multipliers, but they only fall in line when piqued by a campaign running ads that suit the YouTube aesthetic – standing up to substantive critique via the internetz, that doesn’t rely on mere scare tactics, but with particular attention to campaign environment that will talk not just about the ads (right, wrong, etc.), but about the attitudes and dispositions of the makers of that ad, talking about them as strategy in the first place.  That’s the real insight: in a world of the desktop pundit, some of the most mobilized citizens will take up the issue of how and why campaigns run, not just debate the facts of talking points.

The one tripping point for the Obamaniacs: in the JFK-Nixon debates, the TV audience was large enough to swing the election to JFK.  In this election I’m not convinced the same is true for the Obama camp.  I think the McCain ads will reach enough people in the right way to require a more hard-hitting old-media strategy from the Obama camp to make the magic happen in November


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