Fight Fire with Water: How Obama Won the Presidency

You hear a lot of commentary these days about why Obama won the presidency. We had an economic crisis; George Bush is a very unpopular president; we’re in an unpopular war; Obama had more money to run his campaign. These are true, but most of these were true four years ago, too. While the economy was beginning to come out of the recession of Bush’s first term, 2004 brought news that there never were any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Supreme Court’s rejection of Bush’s policies in Guantanamo Bay, Enron, the 1000th US casualty in the Iraq war, Fahrenheit 911, the Abu Ghraib scandal, and the 9/11 Report citing intelligence failures that lead to the attacks. And while Bush’s approval rating was not quite as bad in 2004 as it was in 2008 (around 45% in fall 2004 vs around 38% in fall 2008), Kerry was running against the man himself.

The question of financing is an interesting one, because most campaigns that have more money have more money from big donors, corporations, pacs, etc. Much of Obama’s money came from little guys who usually don’t have any influence on an election. There’s a sense in which he had to win a million tiny elections to get that funding, which is different from the political favors business-as-usual. His campaign money was both the cause and the effect of his having more popular support.

There is, of course, the obvious answer that Obama’s policies were more in line with the average American’s viewpoint, but I believe that this was also true in the last two elections — elections are rarely won for that reason. Here I’m more interested in the way he ran his campaign. There was something else about his campaign that was quite different, and it changed completely the way that Americans reacted to his and John McCain’s messages.

In most elections, both candidates run negative campaigns. Why? Because it works. We are all geared to pay more attention to things that are dangerous than to things that might make our lives better. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective — when you hear about a saber-toothed tiger or an attacking army, you have to act NOW. Other news, even news that could bring long-lasting positive change, can wait. So once one candidate starts using negative attacks, the other candidate is forced to follow.

This style of campaigning has an effect on people even after the campaign. It triggers an “us versus them,” reactionary, fear-based mentality. Bush used this campaign style during his presidency to gain support for the Iraq war. Remember when tens of thousands of people went out and bought duct tape and plastic sheeting (a rather silly reaction to fear)? He could continue this because no one was countering that mentality with a different one.

Hillary Clinton tried using this in the Democratic primaries. She tried to frighten the American public with the 3am ads. If she had been the candidate against John McCain, it would have been a contest about who could create the most fear about the other candidate, and the American population would still be in this mental state. This is a state that leads to quick, fear-based, poor decisions.

People are also drawn to what I will call wisdom: to ideas of interconnectedness, forgiveness, and peace. Figures like Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama draw enormous crowds, and many people in those crowds feel that their lives were changed by the experience. Fear can override this draw, but when we feel safe, the draw toward wisdom is powerful.

Barack Obama conducted a long and well-funded campaign that allowed him to repeat messages of safety, interconnectedness, and peace. To make us feel safe in this wildly shifting economy, he continued to deliver the same message in every context, whether that message was tax-cuts for working families or bringing the troops home from Iraq. His body language is calm: he stands tall, looks people in the eye, and moves in a relaxed manner. To counter McCain’s us-vs-them talk, Obama said “we all love our country.” In both the primaries and the presidential campaign, he refused to be drawn into a competition over who was more patriotic or who was more frightening. Obama fought fire with water.

Another difference between Obama’s campaign and most other campaigns was that he spoke to the American people as though they were intelligent. It’s common for politicians to speak in short quips that can be quoted quickly in tv and news stories: “I will fight for this country,” “He wants to raise your taxes,” “No more bridges to nowhere,” or “He’s a socialist.” Obama’s speeches were much more complex. His race speech was almost 40 minutes long and detailed a very complex viewpoint in which he shows understanding and compassion for people of all races. During the third presidential debate McCain’s points were short and easy to understand (spreading the wealth around, offshore drilling, associating with domestic terrorists). Obama’s responses on each of these points were nuanced, and he took time to explain the complexities of each point calmly and clearly.

People react to the way they are treated. Democrats have been trying to explain complex points in their policies during campaigns for a dozen years or more, but at the same time they took part in the competition to frighten the public into voting for them. You can’t do both. People can’t make intelligent decisions when they’re afraid. While Barack Obama spread messages of safety, hope, and peace, he could then count on people to make decisions based on intelligent information. McCain continued to try to frighten people, and then counted on them to make decisions based on very little and poorly researched information (anyone who looked intelligently at the accusation that Obama was a socialist, for example, would conclude immediately that he is not).

My great hope is that President Obama will run the country as he campaigned. People around the world have marvelled at the poor decisions made by both the voters and our elected officials in this most powerful nation on the planet; now perhaps they will marvel at our wisdom. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

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This entry was posted on Monday, November 10th, 2008 at 9:46 am and is filed under Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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