Friday, August 22, 2008

The Subtext

As I write this, Barack Obama has not yet named his running mate, and some people are starting to say that this delay's going to cost him, as the average American is heading or soon will be heading home from work and has a busy weekend ahead of him--Obama will have to wait until Monday to capture people's attention.

In one sense this is true; Obama's text message will now only excite three groups of people:

-his die-hard supporters who are on the text list,
-professional journalists who will be biting their nails all evening
-political junkies who through accidents of fate aren't professional journalists (like yrs. trly.)

Some would say there's a fourth group, Obama's opponents, but aside from waiting to pounce on whoever it is with negatives, I'd say the Republicans aren't as eager as the first three. By now, they have reams of paper full of focused hard-hitting talking points about all of Obama's possible running mates, and the only momentary excitement, if you can call it that, will be making sure they grab the correct sheaves before heading for the phone or microphone.

But in another sense, the text-message stunt is doing what it's designed to do: create a buzz, make this vice presidency pick seem much more momentous and important than it really is, and add a complicated aura to the Obama campaign, in which the medium becomes the message, and directs the same level of attention to the Obama vice presidency announcement as is usually reserved for American Idol or Survivor (back in the day) results, with possibly just a hint of Oscar night drama.

Who will be the Best Supporting Actor, Presidential Edition? Whose phone rang with a terse message ("You're fired!) just before the all-important text was sent? Who got voted off of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue before he (or she) ever really had a chance? Who ended up paralleling the blowout success of Kelly Clarkson, and who was Sanjaya, the crowd favorite whose charm wasn't enough to seal the deal?

And, of course, that message is aimed at the texting crowd: the young voters, that elusive group who are always supposed to change the course of an election and who seldom actually show up in numbers sizable enough to do so on election night.

Obama's been targeting young voters from the get-go, as Democrats are often wont to do. So much of the "superstar" motif has been designed to appeal to their generation; so many young Obama supporters have said things about how this will be their time, this will be their moment, this is their candidate of change. This is The One. They don't even realize they're being messianic when they talk that way; their "messiahs" so far have been rap stars and actors and sports phenoms, Neo of The Matrix or Anakin of Star Wars. So it makes perfect sense to them that Obama would treat his selection of the vice presidency in a way designed to maximize the buzz and minimize the yawns.

But the subtext here is that anyone who doesn't appreciate this is really too old, conservative, or out-of-touch to be an Obama voter; anyone who doesn't own a pager or cell phone, or who doesn't pay to receive text messages, is not the kind of person Obama's campaign is really reaching out to. The elderly, the poor, the kind of people who think that creating this garish spectacle out of one of what is usually only a mildly interesting moment in a presidential campaign--these are not (forgive me) the droids he's looking for.

But Obama can't come right out and say that, and neither can his campaign. There are a sizable number of voters who don't own cell phones or Blackberrys, or who would find them frustrating to operate if they did. There are groups of voters who would find the underlying unseriousness of this way of announcing Obama's running mate to be offputting, to say the least. There has to be a balance between the superstar buzz and the serious man of the people, the two competing images Obama's been trying to project.

And that's why the McCain "Celebrity!" ads threatened the Obama campaign as much as they did, because for a hideous moment it seemed like the whole country might actually catch on to all of this. But as breathless journalists camp around their phones and computers and televisions tonight, as rumors about iffy bumper-stickers swirl, as young hip Democrat voters make sure their text device of choice is fully charged and operational, I suppose Obama can breathe a sigh of relief--who cares if the label "celebrity" is a negative, so long as Americans are inclined to get enthusiastic about the latest greatest newest hottest craze in the election game.

1 comment:

Irenaeus said...

Kaine is out, which I think would have been the best pick for Obama (taking Virginia would have hurt the GOP severely). Bayh is out. Clinton not vetter.

Looks like Biden, which, if it's the case, is too delicious. Best thing possible for a GOP win. UNLESS -- Clinton is the surprise VP pick, unvetted.