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Drew Westen

Drew Westen

Posted: August 6, 2008 10:19 AM

Why Voters Say they Don't Really Know Barack Obama (and Why They Don't Really Know Much about John McCain, Either)


A New York Times report this week described the frustration and perplexity of the Obama team as to why they are having trouble "getting their message out" in the face of GOP "distractions."

Sound familiar?

The economy is tanking, and McCain's chief economic adviser, Phil Gramm, made one of the most disastrous gaffes a high-ranking campaign official could have made when a nation is facing bank closings, record foreclosures, skyrocketing prices, spiraling unemployment, and an angry electorate: belittling the public for their distress and telling them to stop whining. It would have fit right into a story about a presidential candidate who has as many homes as most people have fingers, and whose first response to the mortgage crisis was to blame the lack of "personal responsibility" of young families buying their first one. It would have fit right into a story of a presidential candidate whose wife complained that the only way to get around Arizona is on a personal jet.

But the Obama campaign chose not to tell that story--or any of its supporting details. When Obama was standing on a world stage last week illustrating for anyone to see precisely what he would do for American respect again around the world--in a world where respect translates into help fighting the terrorists without borders who constitute the greatest threat to our national security--where were his surrogates reminding voters that McCain's whining about Obama's popularity was nothing but sour grapes, and preventing the media from turning Obama's extraordinary success into an example of empty "celebrity" and "arrogance"? (Last I looked, television news producers didn't take their own high ratings as signs of arrogance when they make a strong showing.) And when they finally put a surrogate on television this weekend--John Kerry to face off against Joe Lieberman doing his best Zell Miller impersonation--why did they pick a surrogate associated in every American's mind with the one thing you wouldn't want associated with a candidate who'd had a rough week: losing?

When a campaign has to ask why it is having trouble getting its message out, the campaign is usually the problem. Obama has a voice, and he has the microphone to say anything he wants anytime he wants to say it. But as his opponent "distracts" the media--and hence the public--daily with a relentless drumbeat about what's wrong with Obama--that he isn't strong, that he isn't American, that he isn't patriotic, that he doesn't have the judgment or experience to be president, that he didn't have the balls to serve in the military, that he eats arugula, that he is the most liberal member of the United States Senate, that he isn't "one of us"--what story has Barack Obama told that could possibly catch the public attention? That he has a slightly amended plan for dealing with the energy crisis? And what story is his campaign telling about why voters should worry as much about John McCain as they are beginning to worry about Barack Obama?

McCain has made abundantly clear since infesting his campaign with Rove protégées a few weeks ago that he intends to run a relentlessly negative campaign. For many of us, it was a relief this week to see Obama starting to run an occasional offense this week, instead of running a prevent defense with too few players on the field. What is not as clear is what the Obama campaign learned from the relentlessly negative campaign Hillary Clinton ran against him in the last half of the primary season. They clearly remember that he won. But what is not so clear is whether his campaign took away anything from the fact that he lost two-thirds of the primaries after Hillary turned to her slash-and-burn strategy and that many voters came away with an uneasy feeling about him.

His campaign needs to understand why that happened, because it's the same thing that happened to Al Gore and John Kerry. It's about narratives.

There is a simple fact about elections that has eluded Democrats in every presidential campaign they have lost in the last 40 years: that as a candidate, you have to focus first and foremost not on a litany of "issues" but on four stories: the story you tell about yourself, the story your opponent is telling about himself, the story your opponent is telling about you, and the story you are telling about your opponent. Candidates who offer compelling stories in all four quadrants of this "message grid" win, and those who leave any of them to chance generally lose.

Al Gore didn't tell any of the four. He didn't want to be associated with Bill Clinton (a fatal flaw Obama should not repeat), so he had nothing to say about what his administration had accomplished over eight years of extraordinary peace and prosperity. Even his chief strategist, Bob Shrum, now admits that the campaign suffered from its relentless focus on "issue" positions and policies without weaving them into any coherent story about why Al Gore should be president.

John Kerry told one story--the story of his military bona fides--and left the others to fate (and Karl Rove). He lost when he failed to respond to the two major stories told about him: that he was a flipflopper (a story that started the day he became the presumptive nominee and his campaign never deigned to answer) and the story that he was a fake war hero (a direct contradiction to his only story, which his team thought best to let fester). Neither campaign thought to tell a coherent story about George W. Bush. Try recalling the master narrative either one of them told about their opponent, and see if you can get past the first sentence.

John McCain is telling a story about himself--that he's a man of courage and conviction who loves his country. He is telling a story about Obama--that he's a man of none of those things. Virtually everyone in the country is receiving a barrage of email from anonymous sources detailing this message about Obama without constraints of truth. After watching Hillary Clinton lose to Obama's charisma and after watching Obama enthrall the rest of the world and the troops McCain claims Obama doesn't support last week, he is now in full attack mode, trying to tell a story about his opponent's greatest strength (that Obama is someone who can inspire people, and can even do so on a world stage, where McCain's master narrative had claimed a decided advantage). So now he is telling the story of Obama as an arrogant, uppity, empty celebrity.

That story may well backfire, but it wouldn't hurt if the Obama team put a team on the field, emphasized the desperation underlying McCain's message, turned McCain into a grumpy old man who's just angry that no one seems to find him compelling, and threw something other than an occasional weak arm-punch against McCain for his having nothing to say about himself other than that he doesn't like to talk about the years he spent in Hanoi that he talks about incessantly. Nor would it had hurt if the Obama campaign showed signs of a functioning rapid response team when McCain starting trumpeting the story that Obama only wanted to visit injured troops in Germany if he had camera crews with him, which turned out to be fabricated out of whole cloth. But days of negative press passed before the Obama team had even got their stories straight on that mini-story, leaving the impression that was, as McCain suggested, a dishonorable grandstander. The elapsed time between a charge like that and a powerful count-attack, as any veteran of the Clinton War Room will tell you, should be no more than one hour, so there is never a news cycle--let alone four or five days--during which the primary voices are the opposition and the pundits, who will echo the opposition unless they hear a clear, forceful counter-response.

Barack Obama has told one story: that he will bring change and hope. Many have argued, from early in the Democratic primary season, that his was a campaign of soaring rhetoric and words without substance. That charge has "stuck" in the minds of many voters, who say they don't really know who Obama is and where he stands. It's a peculiar charge for a candidate who has laid out detailed plans for every issue of our time. Try going to his website or listening to his wonkish policy addresses.

But whereas the standard Democratic response is to throw more plans and positions against the wall and hope that they'll stick, that's missing the point: that Obama hasn't yet told a coherent, consistent narrative of who he is that weaves together the themes of his campaign with his own life history. The result is that he has left his race, his exotic history, and the smear campaigns aimed at defining him as "not one of us" to resonate with voters. When I work with candidates, one of the first things I do is to spend a day with them walking through their life history and listening for the salient events, the values that mean something to them, and the stories from their lives or from the people they have met in their lifetimes or on the campaign trail that make those values vivid and come alive and illustrate where their heart is, so that when they go on the road, they have a coherent story to tell about who they are, what they stand for, and how their life story connects with the lives and concerns of their constituents.

Obama began to tell the story of who he is and what his values are in his first biographical ad of the general election, although the ad ran briefly and he did not reinforce it on the stump. I suspect he will attempt to develop that story at the Democratic Convention, but if his team understands how networks work in the brain, they will begin laying the neural tracks now so they have neural traction. And if they understand what it means that Karl Rove and his protégés are now at the helm in McCainland, they will be ready for and inoculate against the counter-narratives designed to derail that message--counter-narratives they have already begun to offer--that he's a black man who readily cries racism (something he has done everything possible to avoid, knowing that that "race card" just activates latent white resentment), that he's exotic in a way that makes him so far from the lives and experiences of everyday Americans that he can't connect with them (all the while drawing record crowds that contradict that story), and do forth.

The average American actually doesn't know Barack Obama, despite all the media attention. They know that he's a gifted, charismatic man with a winning smile, a keen mind, and a tendency to alternative between RFK on the stump and Michael Dukakis in interviews and debates. Most people haven't read Dreams from my Father or The Audacity of Hope, and their only exposure to either will be in Republican attack ads using his words against him. Most white people who worry that he doesn't share their values don't know that he grew up in a family much like theirs, with a white mother and blue collar white grandparents. Most people don't know that he cares so much about the absence of black fathers from the lives of their children not only because he understands the destructiveness, particularly to boys, but that he understands it firsthand, and was only saved from its more destructive impact by the presence of a loving (if sometimes overly fun-loving) maternal grandfather.

Like Kerry, Obama has offered the American voter one story when he should have offered four, and that one story can be summarized in one sentence. Regardless of how detailed your policy positions, that isn't enough. It isn't memorable. It doesn't capture the imagination of a brain wired over the long years of our species' evolution for a particular kind of narrative structure, when the only way to pass knowledge and values down across generations prior to the rise of literacy--and when our children have not yet learned to read--was through stories.

Obama infrequently answers the stories told about him by telling a story about the attacker (the most effective strategy for addressing attacks, and very different from the nuanced answers he often gives responding to attacks that are smokescreens for deeper attacks on his character). Like Kerry, he has made no sustained attempt to define McCain, except on-again off-again efforts to brand McCain as Bush's third term. While getting smacked repeatedly with the charge of elitism, the candidate with the humble roots hasn't mentioned that perhaps McCain is so out of touch with the concerns of everyday Americans because he was born with a silver spoon in his hand, is a poster child for affirmative action for the wealthy and well connected (having both gained admittance to and barely survived the Naval Academy at the bottom of his class as the son and grandson of four-star admirals), and that maybe he should speak more with the servants in his eight homes if he wants to know what the energy crisis or health insurance crisis or mortgage crisis he's been part of the problem in creating in the Senate for three decades actually feels like to everyday Americans.

Is that dirty politics? Is it the dreaded "negativity" (dreaded only by Democrats, who confuse negative statements about their opponent with low-road politics)? It all depends on whether you think telling people the truth in a way that catches their interest, gets them to feel something, and leads them to remember it is unethical. There need be no contradiction between Obama's high-road message and a realistic campaign that addresses all four quadrants of the message grid. If he wants to retain the high road, the least he can do is to counterpunch every time McCain tries to tell a story about Obama or undermine Obama's own story, with a simple, "There you go again--that's exactly the politics of division that has led us to where we are in Washington."

From a neurological standpoint, positive and emotions play different functions, arise in different ways, and even have largely distinct neural circuitry. If McCain creates enough ambivalence about Obama, Obama will need to create enough ambivalence about McCain to cancel it out. No one has ever won an election by saying what a great guy he is, letting his opponent pummel away at his character, and refusing to define his opponent or derail the glorious narrative his opponent is telling about himself.

Perhaps Obama will be the first. But he should study the stump speeches and convention addresses of the only Democrats to win an election when Republicans controlled the White House since FDR: JFK in 1960, Jimmy Carter in 1976, and Bill Clinton in 1992. All three ran positive, forward-thinking campaigns, but all three ran against the incumbent and his party with a strong story that resonated with the American people. None was afraid to mince words about his opponent.

Obama needs to remember that one of the most "negative" political documents ever written was the Declaration of Independence.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," recently released in paperback with a new postscript on the 2008 primaries.