Strong opinions, weakly held

What Obama may lack

Preface this by noting that I’m no political analyst and some would say that my abilities as an analyst of human nature are lacking as well. In spite of those insufficiencies, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s kept Barack Obama from breaking through with a wider swathe of Democratic voters.

Needless to say, given a formidable, well-funded opponent who started with the support of the party establishment and massive name recognition, he has done remarkably well. In spite of a suboptimal result on Tuesday, he’s still got the inside track on the nomination, and he has raised a ridiculous amount of money so far. The people who support Obama really, really support Obama. He does well among independents, but never seems to be able to get more than half of the self-identified Democrats to support him, and I have a theory of why that’s the case.

What strikes me about Obama is that as a politician, he seems unwilling or even unable to campaign based on negative emotion. I mean something different here than negative campaigning, which is usually defined as trying to drive up the negative impressions voters have of your opponent rather than trying to drive up the positive impressions they have of you.

Obama always wants to appeal to our hope for a better America, and to the idea that if people work together, they can effect change. What he seems to avoid is playing to fear, envy, greed, and the other negative emotions that are the refuge of the demagogue. Every once in awhile he’s willing to tap into indignation, but that’s about as far as he’ll go. The medical insurance flier that his campaign produced that tries to scare people about Hillary’s health care plan is notable mainly for the fact that it’s unusual. Most politicians serve voters a daily diet of this stuff.

The problem for Obama is that these are the kinds of appeals that are most effective with a large number of voters. They want red meat. John Edwards based his campaign on setting working people against corporations and rich people. Hillary Clinton is trying to dispatch Obama by making people afraid that he won’t keep America safe, and afraid that they won’t have health insurance if they don’t vote for her. She’s also worked hard to make Democrats afraid that Obama’s national security credentials make him an unable to beat McCain. Why is Hillary more compelling than Obama on NAFTA? It’s because she’s willing to play on people’s fears of foreign workers taking their jobs. President Bush’s entire political strategy has been to keep people in fear.

Because Obama is unwilling to go that route, he gives away the votes of people who respond most passionately to those emotions. That’s my theory, anyway.


  1. Great analysis. Thanks for posting it.

    I’m for Obama too. For his running mate my ideal pick for him Jim Webb (D) VA. As a former Secretary of the Navy under Reagan I think would bring in a lot of dissatisfied Republicans.

    But then again, I’m no analyst either.

  2. I think your analytical skills are excellent, to say the least. Nevertheless, I feel that Obama would not be true to his authentic self if he were to do as the others do. I keep thinking he should be able to get in, as himself, some way. That may smack of magical thinking or predestiny; yet I feel there is truth in it. His difference should somehow be “blessed” with success. . .

  3. What you shouldn’t forget, though, is that this absence of negative emotion is exactly what is driving his supporters towards him. I believe there are tons of people who are sick and tired of constantly being kept fearful and they seem to all be flocking to Obama.

  4. Uhm… cute, but what he lacks is executive experience, concrete policies, and even the most rudimentary awareness of the world around him.

    He’d be a great talk show host.

    POTUS? come on. That’s ridiculous.

    His success is entirely a byproduct of hillary’s naked ambition and the American People’s well earned clinton fatigue.

  5. That’s a nice troll, but he has as much executive experience as John McCain and Hillary Clinton, and he certainly proposes plenty of “contrete policies”. The idea that he doesn’t is a talking point, not an assertion based on fact.

  6. Hah — I remember reading this in a blog recently, but unfortunately can’t seem to find it again to quote verbatim.

    What “experience” of McCain’s makes him qualified to be Commander In Chief? 1) Former POW? 2) Crashing a plane? 3) Being WRRRROOOOONNG about every single thing in Iraq?

  7. “Rudimentary awareness of the world around him?”

    The man shows better knowledge of the world around him than you do. What’s John McCain’s executive experience? Hugging GW Bush?

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