11/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama 'Ad' Showcased Protagonist Turned Narrator

What was billed as Obama's 'ad' or 'infomercial,' was in fact a short documentary about the struggle to achieve the American dream.  More than that, the film switched the central focus of Obama's candidacy from his story to the story of voters, transformed him from protagonist into narrator, and reframed the last leg of this endless election as the denouement of our most fundamental national drama.  It was brilliant political theater.

For many months, now, the election has been returning from Obama's initial idea of the 'American story' to the more classical theme of the 'American Dream.'  His 30-minute film was the full realization of  that return.

Interestingly, Obama's success and struggle as a candidate have come from his decision in 2004 to reframe the more general 'American dream' as his particular 'American story.'  His 2004 Democratic Convention speech showcased this reframing.  In this oft-cited passage from the speech, Obama talks about his parents 'dreams,' but arrives at the idea of his success as the great American 'story':

They're both passed away now. And yet, I know that on this night they look down on me with great pride.  They stand here -- And I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents' dreams live on in my two precious daughters. I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.

(B. Obama, 2004 DNC Keynote Address)

In that speech, Obama became more than a presidential candidate.  He became a protagonist in the progressive narrative about the promise of equality.  In a sense, the Democratic party had been nurturing that story for decades--planting it, growing it, cultivating it, but never quite moving it to the presidential arena.

When Obama's American 'story' put the value of cultural diversity to the center of the party, it inadvertently nudged economic opportunity a bit to the side.  It was not so much that Obama did not believe in the more classical, union-oriented roots of the Democratic party, but that the 'we' had given way to an unexpectedly powerful 'I.'  Obama was great at telling his story and the more he told it, whether in books or on the stump, the more people saw him as a national leader--a President.  And so a candidate telling his American story became the top challenger of a party known for pushing the American dream 'for all.'  

What happened next was a cognitive version of a generational clash.  The Democratic Party divided into two camps and those camps waged a bitter campaign against each other. Those drawn to the 'American story' framing went with Obama, while those tied to the 'American dream' framing ultimately sided with Hillary Clinton, who had articulated this theme already in 2006.

Well aware of Obama's 'story,' Clinton could have stepped up and made her candidacy about her 'story,' but instead she made it about 'Saving the American Dream':

For 230 years, Americans have been united by a simple, common dream that tomorrow will be better than today. The promise of American life, handed on through a dozen generations, rests on this basic bargain: All of us should have the opportunity to live up to our God-given potential, and the responsibility to make the most of it...Over the last five years we've taken a different direction -- one that offered the greatest help to those with the most wealth, under the mistaken belief that when the wealthy do even better, the middle class will eventually get their share. But this economic philosophy has shortchanged America and failed the middle class, too. For the first time ever, we've had four straight years of rising productivity and falling incomes. Americans are earning less, while the costs of a middle-class life have soared: In the past five years, college costs are up 50 percent, health care 73 percent, and gasoline more than 100 percent.

("Saving the American Dream," Jul 22, 2006)

Both Obama and Clinton set powerful themes for their campaigns, but when we look at Clinton's 2006 statement about the 'American Dream,' we see how much it contrasted with Obama's 'story.'  Obama's campaign was based on telling the story of a person who lived the American dream. Clinton's campaign was based talking about restoring the conditions by which the American dream was possible.  Clinton was a narrator, Obama a protagonist. 

At some point, Clinton must have decided not to craft her campaign out of her story, and as Obama gained, then overtook her in the primary states--she must have had sleepless nights wondering if that was the right decision.  Then the tables turned.

If Obama's 'American story' was the key to winning the early primary states, Clinton's 'American dream,' was the key to winning the late ones.  Granted, the debate also brought in some extraneous rough stuff, but both sides knew clinching the nomination was never really about racism or sexism.  It was about the question spreading throughout the middle class about the American dream.  As Arthur Miller once put it, had the American dream become a 'rusting ship tied up at pier, its voyaging days over' or was it still afloat, despite all the bad things that had happened, a ship that 'had not yet made port'--that was still en route to 'somewhere wonderful' (Timebends, p xi)?

If Obama had one weakness, it was his inability to convince voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania that he empathized with their fear of rusting at pier.  Belting back a few shots of rye whiskey, Clinton made them feel she did.

The truth was always that they both did and do empathize deeply.  Obama just had to work harder convincing voters of it, which meant spending less time on the stump telling his story and more time narrating theirs.   He managed to do it enough--barely--to clinch the deal. 

Arguably, however, it was not until the commercial paper markets seized up and the talk of the day turned from Iraq and healthcare to the Great Depression 2.0 that Obama really began in earnest to reframe himself as narrator rather than protagonist in this election.  And this brings us back to last night's film.

Without question, Obama's film succeeded at the levels of politics and drama, but above all else it showcased the new voice of the Democratic candidate as narrative of other people's struggle with the American dream first, successful protagonist of the American story second.  

Having started his presidential campaign introducing himself, Obama concluded it by introducing others:  the hockey mom, the retiree, the autoworker.  The Obama we had heard so many times talk about himself as a product of a diverse family struggling to give their own child the opportunity to achieve--opportunity because the American dream is real and alive--became the Obama who walked us through the struggles of other families whose success had been interrupted, defaulted, bankrupted. A candidate who explained how his mother gave him confidence became the voice of confidence for families who had lost theirs.

Over and over again, the film showcased this exact same dynamic:  Obama the narrative of the American dream. 

If we look back over the themes of Clinton's 2006 statement about the American Dream, however, we notice how successfully Obama's campaign and film have reconnected with the classical economic themes of the Democratic Party. 

As John McCain buckles under his own inability to unfold a consistent narrative and Sarah Palin's xenophobic nationalism, Obama has quietly become the narrative voice of our national drama--steadily convincing more and more voters that the American ship is not rusting at pier, and that he is best suited to captain it to a promising future.

While the Republican end-game manages to nudge the national polls a few points closer, the real story is playing out in the states where Obama struggled in the primary:  Pennsylvania, Ohio--even Indiana.  These are places where Obama could not close the deal by telling his story in the primaries, but where he has taken the upper hand in the general election by narrating our story. 

McCain, for his part, has gone in the opposite direction.  Despite all the jabs and mud slinging from the McCain campaign, they have not been able to convince voters to see McCain as the narrator of voter's problems--let alone as the voice of confidence ready to lead them to real solutions.  Instead, McCain has become the voice of shrill politics--the leader of a ragtag team of extremists whose followers have given rise to a kind of politics that makes Democrats and Republicans alike shuffle nervously and think of Europe in the 1930s.  Whether or not John McCain is that man (he likely is not), he has failed repeatedly to manifest the kind of voice capable of dispelling those fears.

So we arrive at the end of the 2008 election with one candidate heralding change with a confident voice resonating throughout the country, the other hawking fear in a voice drowned out by the din of a campaign he cannot control.  The war hero becomes the captive of his own, radicalized followers.  The progressive protagonist becomes the narrator of the American drama.

One film.  Two years.  Five days to go.

Crossposted from Frameshop.