Obama Still Needs Better Introduction to the Voters

Posted August 25, 2008 at 6:44pm

One of my friends e-mailed me the other day with the following question: Could somebody please explain who exactly Barack Obama is?

[IMGCAP(1)]What a paradox! The guy is a rock star. Some even think the Illinois Democrat is the biggest celebrity ever. The guy seemingly has been on the cover of more magazines than there are magazines. But there are some details that just aren’t coming across, and it’s time we know more.

Somehow in all the media frenzy about the first viable black candidate, they have buried some crucial details about his life and background. For starters, they have buried the community organizer part of him. For someone like myself who started out life in a working-poor household, that would resonate — the decision to serve in a community where he knew no one. Yet, he had the desire to make a difference.

Isn’t that exactly what we need right now? Someone to organize average citizens against the special interests? Someone who devoted his life to the common good? Someone who helped the little guy who was being screwed by corporate interests keep his job, keep his health care? Someone to inspire people to take personal responsibility for their lives?

This part of Obama’s bio matters enormously because it connects his values with the values of most working people across the country. Just remember back to the 1992 campaign season. Then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton got elected because he had a life story that connected him compellingly to the problems that many Americans faced.

Clinton’s message resonated with voters deeply worried about the economy, and he convinced them that he would fight for their jobs — in the middle of a jobless recovery. He was able to do so because Democrats used the convention to tell his story and connect the dots between his life and voters’ struggles. Obama must do the same.

Obama’s central challenge this week is to make a certain group of voters comfortable with him as a person. If he is successful in telling his story and connecting his life to the times we all live in and the struggles facing ordinary Americans, Democrats will win. But the campaign will still need to explain a little more about what kind of change they want to bring to the country and how Obama will be able to successfully implement his policies in Washington, D.C.

The Obama campaign must forget the 32-point plans for now. It’s time the campaign comes up with something bold, such as “Fighting for the American Dream” or “Giving Americans a Fair Shake.” Something that combines his bio (he has lived the American dream), leadership style (willing to fight), and vision — all the while creating a favorable compare and contrast with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), which is imperative.

And then the campaign must get up every day and do two things successfully: (1) Find ways to push the big ideas through the fall, and, (2) act to keep his Republican opponents on the defensive (McCain’s whole strategy is to raise questions about Obama, and keeping him on the defensive is the best way to prevent him from getting off shots).

This brings me to the other priority Democrats face this week: unity.

There’s no question that the majority of delegates are here to celebrate the historic journey of Barack Obama as the first black candidate ever to win a major party’s nomination. This was no easy feat and even now some Democrats are privately worried that voters are not ready to elect a black president. Truth is, no one will honestly know if the American people are ready until they show up on Election Day and decide.

Political wounds take time to heal, and it’s only been a couple of months since Obama clinched the nomination, and he will need the backing of many of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) supporters to win. As the election heats up and voters get more and more opportunities to see Obama and McCain side by side, their differences highlighted in stark contrast, Democrats will eventually unite. The differences are just too big and too glaring to let petty grudges divide the party.

I know Sen. Clinton will give an amazing speech and Bill Clinton will do the same. The political fire is coming, and Democrats must find ways to stick together. A divided party only helps the Republicans, and both Clintons understand the importance of unity.

Meanwhile, McCain and the Republicans are watching all of this action. They have spent weeks unloading their arsenal of negative attacks on Obama and the Democrats. But unlike Democrats of the past, Obama has the resources to fight back. Even with all his personal charisma, Obama will need Democrats like Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.), both Clintons, Al Gore, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and others to defend his character and patriotism.

Most Americans still have favorable opinions about Obama. He is a celebrity, and he’s earned every moment of it for the exact same reason his speech this week in Denver will go over very well. The only thing to worry about right now is that Obama not just focus on giving a good speech, but also work to pull the party together and prepare to destroy the Republican attack machine.

Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.

Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.