Sunday, 5 October 2008

Cool Obama, Hot McCain

The importance of personal heuristics (mental short cuts) based on
presidential candidates’ (for which read, party leaders’) character and narratives is being highlighted yet again. Character and narrative are helping to tilt the presidential election contest Barack Obama’s way.

Just after the first presidential candidates’ debate – and McCain's abrupt and somewhat weird foray into Washington's negotiations
over a Wall Street bailout bill, followed by his unsuccessful attempt to postpone the debate -- E.J. Dionne jr. observed:

“McCain, once the candidate of tested experience, must now battle the perception that he has become the riskier choice, a man too given to rash moves under pressure. Obama, whose very newness promised change but also raised doubts, has emerged as the cool and unruffled candidate who moves calmly but steadily forward.”

The New York Times’ Patrick Healy has explained the two candidates’ actions over the bailout bill like this:

"Mr. McCain, who came of age in a chain-of-command culture, showed once again that he believes that individual leaders can play a catalytic role and should use the bully pulpit to push politicians. Mr. Obama, who came of age as a community organizer, showed once again that he believes several minds are better than one, and that, for all of his oratorical skill, he is wary of too much showmanship."

Some commentators who are less sympathetic to Obama have reached similar conclusions. Charles Krauthammer has noted that, with all the fundamentals favouring the opposition, McCain has little choice but to “throw long”. Each time, it has failed.

“[McCain’s] frenetic improvisation has perversely (for him) framed the rookie challenger favorably as calm, steady and cool.

“In the primary campaign, Obama was cool as in hip. Now Obama is cool as in collected. He has the discipline to let slow and steady carry him to victory.

Krauthammer’s key point is that:

“[Obama] understands that this election, like the election of 1980, demands only one thing of the challenger: Make yourself acceptable. Once Ronald Reagan convinced America that he was not menacing, he won in a landslide. If Obama convinces the electorate that he is not too exotic or green or unprepared, he wins as well.”

Since the convention Obama has altered the tone and style of his campaign, to be moderate in policy and temper; acceptable, be cool, and reassuring.

Barack Obama’s new persona carries some risks. For instance, he may not appear to empathise sufficiently with the deep anger and anxiety that many Americans feel about the economy. And McCain’s approach may yet be vindicated. Jafapete notes that McCain’s campaign director Steve Schmidt, who learnt his dark arts at the feet of Karl Rove, is a believer in the Boyd cycle, an approach to military engagement that seeks to overcome a superior opponent by means of rapid movements that disorient and confuse, and cause him to over-react or under-react. September may have been Obama’s month, but August was McCain’s.

There’s still a long way to go. As Jafapete says:

"Expect to overdose on fear and smear in the coming weeks. The celebrity ad worked a treat, and there’s plenty more negative ads where that came from."

Right now, however, both candidates have shifted the centre of gravity of (but not rewritten) their narratives – John McCain from warrior-in-command towards a feckless risk-taker and Barack Obama from unfamiliar outsider to calm, thoughtful decision-maker.

1 comment:

jafapete said...

"Expect to overdose on fear and smear in the coming weeks. The celebrity ad worked a treat, and there’s plenty more negative ads where that came from."

Can I correct that to "coming week"? When I wrote that, McCain's ads were 100% negative, but he had yet to unleash Palin-pitbull.

It only took one week of the vile hate-mongering for the McCain campaign to realise that not only was it not working, but it was damaging the McCain narrative. Especially with the independents. Which brings us back to your post.

McCain's narrative seems to be turning into a Shakspearean tragic narrative -- a once honourable man driven by lust for power and some evil (Rovian) advisers to abandon his principles, only to find himself banished from society. Only in this case he gets to retire to his ten houses...