As yesterday's primaries started heading toward its climax, Barack Obama hit back hard on Hillary Clinton's gas tax proposal, referring to it as a "gimmick" attempt at pandering. The criticism may have helped - among Indiana voters who said the economy was their number-one issue, Obama closed in the exit polls to a manageable 53-47 second place. But Obama didn't turn last night's result into an occasion for Clinton campaign eulogies on the strength of criticizing others for pandering. In fact, last night's game changer may have been a pander of his own, intended to score with the one critical constituency he had lost in the past month: the political media.
The Obama campaign is well-known and somewhat criticized for not engaging the media in what Howard Kurtz calls a courtship. While McCain treats the press as a base to flatter, and Clinton's team tenaciously works them like Mike Krzyzewski works the referees, the Obama camp stays aloof, playing hard to get. This has served a strategic purpose, magnifying the candidates overall allure and newish flavor. This is the source of Chris Matthews' famous "tingle-up-the-leg." But there's a flip-side to playing hard to get: if your pursuers manage to penetrate your mystery on their own, and they don't like what they see, the backlash sown can be significant.
That's precisely what happened in the long march to the Pennsylvania primary - Obama's mystique got penetrated in a number of negative ways, chief among them being his "bitter" commentary and the Reverend Wright fiasco. From there, the relationship between Obama and the media ended up in squarely in the third quarter of a matinée romance, in which the met-cute lovers divided over unforeseen differences. Obama started losing news cycles in droves, and the Pennsylvania loss only magnified the elitist meme.
In the final days before the North Carolina/Indiana primary, however, the media signaled that a reconciliation was possible. But their terms were clear: Obama had to "let people get to know him," and he had to play up his working class background. One of the constant refrains from yesterday afternoon's coverage was (and I'm paraphrasing/amalgamating): "How has Obama allowed the elitist tag to stick to him when it's Hillary who hasn't pumped her own gas for years?" A crude overture? Certainly. But it was a clear call for specific action: it was time for Obama to share.
It's been my impression that Obama - perhaps to a fault - seems to outright loathe having to do what the media expects of him. It's why he constantly insists that he's never going to change his style of campaigning (even as he does just that). There's been some obvious movement away from that position - Obama's newfound willingness to engage the Fox News Channel is a fitting example. But with the media stating explicit demands, and practically begging Obama to just let them give him a news-cycle win, Obama finally sucked it up and gave in last night, during his speech in North Carolina.
Here is the relevant text:
The people that I've met in small towns and big cities across this country understand that government can't solve all our problems, and we don't expect it to. We believe in hard work; we believe in personal responsibility and self-reliance.
But we also believe that we have a larger responsibility to one another as Americans, that America is a place, that America is the place where you can make it if you try, that no matter how much money you start with or where you come from or who your parents are, opportunity is yours if you're willing to reach for it and work for it.
It's the idea that, while there are few guarantees in life, you should be able to count on a job that pays the bills, health care for when you need it, a pension when you retire, an education for your children that will allow them to fulfill their God-given potential, that's the America we believe in. That's the America that we know.
This is the country that gave my grandfather a chance to go to college on the G.I. Bill when he came home from World War II, a country that gave him and my grandmother the chance to buy their first home with a loan from the FHA.
This is the country that made it possible for my mother, a single parent who had to go on food stamps at one point, to send my sister and me to the best schools in the country on scholarships.
This is the country that allowed my father-in-law, a shift worker, a city worker at a water filtration plant in Chicago, to provide for his wife and two children on a single salary.
Now, this is a man who was diagnosed at the age of 30 with multiple sclerosis, who relied on a walker to get himself to work, and yet every day he went, and he labored, and he sent my wife and her brother to one of the best colleges in the nation.
And when he talked about his job, he expressed that it was important not just because it gave him a paycheck, but because it described his dignity, his self-worth, his self-respect. It was an America that didn't just reward wealth, but it rewarded work and the workers who created it.
That's the America I love. That's the America you love. That's the America that we are fighting for in this election.
In that section, Obama addressed every single one of the media's wishes: he told the part of his story that they specifically wanted to hear, elucidate an understanding of working-class people through the citing of specific examples, and framed the whole thing within a demonstration of patriotism.
It was, in essence, a pander, pure and simple, and a break from his traditional aloofness. But this was the part of the speech that got my attention: at that moment, I was convinced that the "split-decision" storyline - fully expected in advance and seemingly emerging, if a little delayed - was going to get flipped to a Clinton eulogy. Sure enough, that's precisely what happened - the speech got widely praised, Clinton's Indiana travails almost immediately shifted from "pulling out a gritty win in an uncertain state" to a bag of bad news (even when she was still up by four points!), and the whole matter culminated in Tim Russert's declaration that the race was over.
If there's an ur-narrative to the ways in which the media has bounced back and forth with favor, shown alternatively to one candidate or the other, I tend to steer away from the idea that it is a result of bias - though in individual circumstances, a bias is clear. I'm also cool to the lazy/fickle angle. I'd prefer to point out that if nothing else, the media enjoys the sturm und drang of this drawn out campaign, and they love their version of the storyline. Mathematically speaking, the nomination was decided a long time ago, but the press has seen to it that every possible twist and turn got amplified so that they might garner attention and eyeballs.
I don't want to diminish the actual work that the Obama campaign did in Indiana and North Carolina, pressing his case and working to appeal to voters. Similarly, one cannot overlook the tyranny of the math: at this point, Clinton would need to win sixty-five percent of all extant delegates - pledged and super - to secure the nomination. But the most significant event of last night's primaries came in that section of that speech. Obama finally broke with his own tradition of aloofness, begrudgingly honored the media's request, and provided their narrative with the next great plot point they were seeking.
And that's how Obama turned a tie into a win.