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Can Obama Get Back On Message?

01/22/2008 10:29 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John Edwards was the clear winner of last night's Democratic debate, but the big story is how far off message Barack Obama has gone since his victory in Iowa.  While Obama continues to stir hopes for voters, the impression he gives increasingly on the national stage is of a candidate caught in the old-school, finger pointing blame game.  With Super Tuesday just a few weeks away, the challenge Obama now faces is substantial.  Despite his lead in South Carolina, Obama must find a way to lead the debate again with his 'new tone,' or he will likely go down fighting in the very style of politics he seeks to retire.

'Hope and Change' Becomes 'Blame'

Like it or not, the Clinton campaign has knocked the Obama campaign off the core theme of 'hope and change.'  This change is significant because the 'hope and change' theme took over the entire political debate in the 24 hours after the Iowa debate.  That is no longer the case.

Despite trumpeting his ability to bring a 'new tone' to politics, last night's debate showed an Obama who scolded, complained, and pointed fingers.  His performance last night raises a serious question without a clear answer:
How can a Presidential candidate bring change if he is so easily thrown off message by his opponents?

Having dominated previous debates with his quick wit and charisma, Obama's rhetoric and body language last night gave the impression of a candidate stuck--like everyone else--in old-school mud slinging politics.

The ability to throw Obama off his message may be a Pyrrhic victory for Hillary Clinton's campaign.  In the end, voters not persuaded by Obama's message of change may jump to Edwards rather than Clinton.  Nonetheless, Clinton has managed to open up a significant chink in Obama's armor by hitting on the difference between 'rhetoric and reality.' 

Indeed, that Obama came off as so defensive last night was a good example of how quickly his central campaign promises have been tripped up by his opponents. 

For their part, both Clinton and Edwards gave solid, but not inspiring debate performances.  As usual, the word that came to mind after watching Clinton's in last night's debate was 'prepared.'  While Obama struggled to get out subtle distinctions in long sentences--Clinton spoke in sharp, clear, if not over-produced talking points.

Edwards Wins, Clinton Benefits

Edwards gave a solid performance, but had noticeable difficulty breaking into the discussion.  Over and over again, Edwards deftly reframed the debate to questions of solving poverty, healthcare, and economic progress.  More than the other two candidates, Edwards connected the debate back to the ideas and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., on whose federal holiday the debate was taking place.    But it is unlikely that Edwards will gain considerable ground in the polls as a result of his performance. Having carried South Carolina in the last Presidential election prior to becoming John Kerry's running mate, Edwards has struggled to stay within 15 points of Clinton and Obama.

Edwards won the debate, therefore, but it is Clinton who will reap the reward.

For his part, Barack Obama now has a herculean and unenviable political task before him.  Waist-deep in the very kind of politics he claims he will end, Obama has to show the American people that he can indeed change the tone of politics.  Obama must not only get back on message, but he must bring the entire debate back on board, too.

Focus and Frame

Obama may well have a point that the Clinton campaign is taking his comments out of context to score political points.  Nonetheless, all political campaigns use this tactic, and the chance of him not facing this in the general election is slim.

But the larger problem may be Obama's inability to keep his campaign message focused across the full range of campaign events.

In particular,  while disciplined and on message in his campaign speeches, Obama has shown a tendency to wanders off message in press interviews, often bringing in statements that  are vague and even contradictory.

In a recent interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal, Obama made a statement praising Ronald Reagan and criticizing the Democratic Party.  The statement was immediately criticized by the Clinton campaign.  In fact, the problem with Obama's comment about Reagan was less that he praised the icon of the Republican Party than the inability of anyone to understand what Obama meant.

When questioned by Clinton on his Reagan comment, Obama clarified by saying that Reagan should be noted for his ability to convince Democrats to vote for policies they did not think initially that they would support.  The clarification only made the original statement more vague.

In a primary season dominated by 5-second sound bytes, Obama's tendency to stray into points that require long explanation has become a campaign liability. His ability to win the Democratic nomination depends on whether or not he can stop blaming Clinton and get back to framing the debate.

In the end, the debate last night was as revealing about the state of the Democratic primary race as it was contentious. 

Despite the lead Obama holds in South Carolina, he has quite a few sleepless nights ahead of him.

(cross posted from Frameshop)