Barack Obama Takes the Nomination & a Script from Ronald Reagan

by Rick Rockwell

Ronald Reagan was called the Great Communicator. And if so, what does that make Barack Obama? The Great Salesman?

Obama’s superb oratorical skills were again on display Thursday night, Aug. 28 at Invesco Field in Denver as he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination. And he did another great job of selling his script of hope.

Arguably, Obama is the best orator to run for president in almost a half century. Certainly, he’s on another level when compared to Reagan, who may have had that B-movie leading man smile, the pompadour and the easy grace before a microphone, but was mostly Hollywood smoke and mirrors a la Michael Deaver.

And the marketing geniuses behind Obama (David Axelrod and David Plouffe of AKP&D Message and Media) have pulled off quite a coup with Obama’s acceptance speech, because it is now obvious the remainder of the campaign will cast the Senator from Illinois in a familiar Reagan role: the Outsider who comes to Washington to clean up the town.

Why is this genius? Well, only because every president elected since 1976, with the exception of George H.W. Bush has won on a campaign that cast him as the Outsider. Even Reagan and President Bill Clinton won second terms, successfully selling the idea they just hadn’t had time to set things right. They were still the Outsiders. This is also genius because it casts Obama’s major flaw — his inexperience in Washington, only four years in the Senate, and half of that out of town running for president — as a major asset.

Americans want Washington fixed. They know it doesn’t work. This is why the Outsiders keep winning.

Also, better than any of the other Outsiders (Carter, Reagan, Clinton or George W. Bush), Obama harnesses both the mood for generational change and for racial equality. Who better to put the face on real change than a young African-American?

How does Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) run against that? McCain has spent the past generation in Washington. Except for Reagan, he’s the oldest person to run for president. McCain has trotted out the Karl Rove playbook in defining Obama as a celebrity, a euphemism for an empty suit: someone not up to the monumental tasks of fixing both the economy and a broken foreign policy. In his acceptance speech, Obama struck back hard at that campaign strategy, calling it “stale tactics to scare voters.”

Smartly, Obama also turned this Republican tactic on its head, noting in detail the failed policies of Bush II. “It’s time for them to own their failure,” Obama noted in his speech.

And as a final marketing flourish, Obama and his family took their bows before the thousands in Denver with the song “Only in America” by country music duo Brooks & Dunn playing. Picking a country song to market the rest of the campaign for a very urban candidate who needs rural voters is just another style point in Obama’s favor.

But does it add up? Obama may be the leader of a generational movement, but does his inexperience give us anything more than a Democratic sequel to the inexperienced and inept George W. Bush?

And other tough questions abound. Obama promises a middle class tax cut for 95 percent of all Americans. (Remember how Clinton promised such a tax cut in 1992, and then turned around and said the country couldn’t afford it as soon as he was in office? Could we be looking at a repeat?) Yet in his acceptance speech Obama also laid out aggressive plans for energy independence, universal health care, and new educational investments. How does he pay for all this? Will jacking up taxes on the rich actually pay for those great ideas? And besides vague assertions to bipartisan approaches, how does Obama intend to attack the very partisan nature of Washington?

Finally, is real change afoot with Obama in the White House? Behind the scenes, political operatives linked to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) hold key positions in the Obama campaign. These links and Obama’s Vice Presidential pick, Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) tell us the old D.C. insiders will have plenty of pull in a future Obama administration.

But at this juncture, Obama’s rhetoric and oratory have sold the country: the nation wants to believe the Outsider can deliver this time. Great salesmanship has a way of erasing all of those nagging doubts. At least for some. Until buyer's remorse sets in.

For more background on the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:

(The photo of Sen. Barack Obama was taken during a campaign appearance in California in January of this year by Eric Charlton of Menlo Park, CA via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see Obama's historic moment at the Democratic Convention in Denver and his full acceptance speech, please check below.)

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