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Morning Jay: The Obama Campaign: From the 'Macarena' to 'Give 'em Hell!'

6:00 AM, Apr 20, 2011 • By JAY COST
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That’s a perfect example of a bandwagon campaign: Harrison deserves your support because he has the support of so many other people in the country, because of “this great commotion.” 

Obama’s 2008 campaign was an update of the old Harrison strategy. That was the point of the huge rallies in football stadiums, the celebrity endorsements (who nowadays sing bandwagon songs with a nice professional sheen applied to them), the quasi-religious chanting of “Yes we can!” at Obama rallies, and all the rest. 

This was a bandwagon campaign with a simple purpose. When your candidate lacks the experience traditionally thought to be necessary to run the government, and you have two wars and an economic slowdown, you need something to cover the gap. And that something was the impression that there was a broad, mass movement behind Obama.

To some extent that was true, of course. The tens of thousands who filled Invesco Field to hear his nomination acceptance were not Hollywood extras who were paid to be there. However, the Obama bandwagon campaign ultimately masked a very significant feature of his 2008 candidacy: when you add up the unique Clinton primary and McCain general election voters, you come up with about 75 million people who, at one point or another, registered opposition to Obama in 2008. That is not meant to suggest for even a second that his victory lacked legitimacy – it is only to point out that the impression that there was a massive, popular groundswell for his candidacy was at least in part a carefully crafted illusion, built on a core of intense supporters.

Set against other presidential campaigns throughout history, I was largely non-plussed by the whole operation. Obama's team did an amazing job of figuring out the complicated rules of the nomination process, and its ability to bring middle class liberals onto the bandwagon was equally impressive. However, his team (and Obama himself, for that matter) seemed like it believed its own spin, often pushing all kinds of weird excesses that cast this junior senator as a divine entity. In terms of real political support, the bandwagon stalled by the time of the Ohio primary in March 2008; the European trip (part of the bandwagon strategy) that summer was a total flop; and in the end it was only the collapse of Lehman Brothers that pushed him into the White House.

And of course, the problem with any “keep the ball rolling to Washington” campaign is an inevitable one: what happens after it finally gets to D.C.? This is a problem that Harrison – who died just a month after his inauguration – never had to experience. Yet it is clearly one Obama and his people are now grappling with.

They probably had hoped to run on the theme that Americans are now better off than they were four years ago. Like FDR, they would shift the blame of the economic collapse on to the Republicans while taking credit for the recovery. The problem for them is that this has been a terrible recovery, one that has fallen far short of everybody's expectations. That leaves them with a version of the Hoover ’32 argument: things would be a lot worse off were it not for Obama. 

That’s not nearly good enough, so watch the Obama team pursue two strategies next year:

(1) Try to recreate the bandwagon effect. It won’t be nearly as effective in 2012 as in 2008 simply because he’s no longer an ambiguous phenomenon. Now, he’s the president who has a real – and extremely disappointing – record. Still, look for his team to generate, once again, the impression that he’s riding the crest of some unprecedented wave of popular support. That’s the point of the billion-dollar campaign fund, the gratuitous (and utterly absurd) suggestions that Texas is somehow in play, and the general idea that he’s virtually invincible next year. Also, when the campaign gets going, expect plenty of super-large rallies that will play on people’s inability to appreciate the scale of American elections (30,000 people at a rally is a drop in the bucket in a country where 130 million vote) to reinforce the notion that he can’t lose.

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