A version of this post was originally published on CJR.org, the website of the Columbia Journalism Review.
On Wednesday, the New York Times ran a story about the Obama campaign’s tightening image machine. Exhibit A was an incident at a Detroit rally on Monday when two Muslim women in headscarves were prevented from sitting behind the candidate’s podium, in an apparent effort to avoid photographs that would fuel further Obama-is-a-Muslim rumors. The Times story followed that example with two other examples of media manipulation, and a complaint about restrictions on press access to the candidate.
Today, the Obama campaign unveiled a new ad that exemplifies its newly aggressive approach to refashioning the candidate’s image. Entitled “The Country I Love,” the spot reintroduces him as a child raised by “a single mom and my grandparents” who taught Obama “values straight from the Kansas heartland where they grew up.” The Times suggests the ad is partly a response to the same rumors that led to the ham-handed decision in Detroit: “This advertisement tries to define Mr. Obama and his life story in the face of smear e-mail and Internet innuendo about his heritage, questions about his patriotism and accusations about his liberal record.”
For a newspaper that made an issue of the Obama campaign’s increasingly manicured style earlier this week, their ad-check is curiously silent on one of the spot’s most striking features: It makes no mention of Obama’s Kenyan father. This heartland “reintroduction” is all the more striking when compared with Obama’s first time on the national stage—his 2004 keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention—where his speech began: “Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let’s face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely. My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya.” Coming from a man who once wrote a best-selling book entitled Dreams from My Father, the omission is especially odd.
Other news outlets also treaded lightly on the absence of Obama’s father from the ad: The Washington Post fails to mention it at all, while the Boston Globe could even be read as giving the impression that his father was included in the ad’s thumbnail bio. The Globe writes: “[The ad] goes light on his biography as the son of a white mother from Kansas and black father from Kenya, and instead highlights his up-by-his-own-bootstraps story.”
There could be many reasons for media outlets’ failure to note this striking strategic decision. The lede of the Boston Globe’s story may provide one clue, writing that “there aren’t too many Americans who don’t know who [Obama] is by now.” But is that really true? Steeped in the presidential race (for some reporters, perhaps, to the point of being sick of it), members of the press may forget that Americans do not follow politics nearly as closely as they do. Americans tune in notoriously late to presidential elections. While most undoubtedly know who Obama is and what he looks like, they may not be well versed on details of his background. If Americans really knew what they thought of Obama’s story, then why would he need an ad like this to “reintroduce himself?” Media consensus holds that this ad is a defensive response to suggestions that Obama is a Muslim or is unpatriotic—clearly, his biography and his image are still being defined.
Here’s another thought: Outlets might be afraid of accusations that, by emphasizing the omission, they’d be unnecessarily making an issue of race. While it may be understandable that the media is cautious about approaching such a charged subject, race is an inherent part of Obama rebranding story. The Obama campaign seems to be gambling that the candidate’s best hope for connecting to heartland voters is to emphasize the part of the American experience that he shares with them. But it is hard to argue that it is not newsworthy to report that a candidate who once played up his African heritage is completely subsuming it to his Kansas roots in his first advertising blitz of the general election. And it’s hard to understand why the press is letting the omission slide.
Posts like this satirical write-up on Comedy Central's Indecision2008.com reminds us, Obama is dogged by suspicion arising from the combination of his dark skin and unusual name. In that setting, the ad's omission of his father's story may risk giving voters who are not well-versed in his biography the impression that he is hiding something. The ad's pictures of young Obama with his white mother and grandparents are very striking, perhaps all the more so in traditionally Republican states where the ad will air like Georgia and Alaska, where less than one-half of one percent report being of mixed African American and white ancestry.
As polls in places like Georgia show, this doesn't mean voters won't support him. But after watching this ad, voters who do not already know his father's story may be left with the unfortunate impression that he feels he has something to hide.