News & Current Affairs

August 25, 2008

Obama sets out to sell his vision

Obama sets out to sell his vision

Barack Obama has a hard act to follow at this convention: himself.

Barack Obama speaks in Wisconsin

Barack Obama faces a career-defining moment

Four years ago, when Democrats gathered for their national convention in Boston to nominate John Kerry, the then-US Senate candidate made a much-lauded, career-defining speech. His message of a unified America, coming from the mouth of a young, mixed-race politician, marked the effective launch of the history-making Obama phenomenon.

It also brings a level of expectation ahead of his speech on Thursday, which the last Democratic candidate, who went on to become president, did not have to face.

When nominee Bill Clinton spoke at the 1992 Convention in New York, it was four years after he had made a convention speech that was widely seen (including by Clinton, himself) as rather long-winded and boring.

He did not repeat his mistake. With his “I still believe in a place called Hope” speech, the Arkansas governor defined himself in a way that resonated with the country at large.

Weight of history

Barack Obama needs to do something similar. With opinion polls placing him in a tight race with Republican John McCain and suggesting that sections of the public still do not have a clear impression of who he is, his goal is to come out of the week having defined himself as someone whom Americans can feel comfortable about as a leader.

He needs to sell his vision, his experience and his unconventional background.

Pepsi Center, Denver

Mr Obama must unite the Democrats behind his campaign

He will be selling that vision of himself on an auspicious date: the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.

But, while that may add to the weight of history on his shoulders, the location of his speech represents a break with history.

Obama will not accept the nomination in the Convention Hall, but at the 70,000-seater Invesco Field, home of the Denver Broncos Football team. This will provide a unique spectacle, but it also presents a certain danger of perception for a candidate who – since securing the Democratic nomination in June – has faced accusations of being too presumptuous about his chances of winning the November election.

Clinton tensions

And while the 1992 Clinton experience offers him a something of a blueprint for success, the 2008 Clinton presence, on the other hand, presents him with potential pitfalls.

Both Hillary and Bill Clinton will be speaking at the Convention. Their performances – on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively – will be watched closely for signs of party disunity, that could harm not only Barack Obama’s chances, but those of Democrats running for Congress in November.

Despite a joint appearance with Senator Obama in Unity, New Hampshire earlier this summer, Hillary Clinton is still dogged by questions about her level of support for the man who narrowly beat her to the nomination. Many of her supporters are still unhappy about the manner of her defeat. There is also concern that she was not seriously considered for the position of running mate, which Senator Joe Biden has secured.

Bill Clinton, file picture

Observers will be closely watching Bill Clinton’s mood

By allowing Senator Clinton’s delegates to participate in a formal nominating roll call vote – recognising the historical nature of her campaign – the Obama team hopes to defuse some of the remaining tensions and shore up the support of the millions who voted for the former First Lady. Neither outcome is a foregone conclusion.

John McCain’s campaign is doing its mischievous best to stir things up: releasing an advert, showing Hillary Clinton asking some of the same questions about Barack Obama’s experience and judgment during the primary campaign which they are asking now.

But, perhaps, it is Bill Clinton’s speech that will be the most closely dissected; both for its words and for the body language of the man delivering it. By his silence, the former president has given the impression that he is still sulking about Obama’s victory over his wife.

Many Convention-goers will be looking for him to swallow his pride and give the sort of full-throated endorsement of the party’s nominee, that will sway Democrats flirting with John McCain, and help to repair some of the damage done to President Clinton’s own reputation during the primaries.

As he effectively hands over the role of party leader to a younger man, he can still play the role of party healer.

How to measure the success of this? The time-honoured tradition has been to look at the “convention bounce” – the boost in the opinion polls which a candidate gains from his moment engulfed in balloons and ticker tape. Bill Clinton, for example, got one in 1992 and never relinquished his lead over George H W Bush.

Time is not Barack Obama’s side, though. No sooner has the Democratic Convention finished, than the Republicans meet in St Paul, Minnesota.

So the onus is on Senator Obama to make the most of his time in the spotlight, before the spotlight quickly turns to his Republican rival, John McCain.

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