Campaign vs. Metacampaign: Obama at the Crossroads

10/20/2007 04:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

National campaigns don't really take place in in crowded halls, lobbyist lunches, debates, or even in the media. While each of these are important, they only matter because they provide cash - or create images - that help influence and shape what takes place on the real field of battle: the human imagination.

This may seem painfully obvious to some, yet its implications are subtle, and it's one reason why Barack Obama is so far behind in the polls. He is now going to be pressed to respond by changing his strategy, which he should. But if he changes in the wrong way the result could be fatal to his campaign. Should he go on the offensive? Sure - but only in a manner that fits his overall context, and only if he also finds several key issues that demonstrate he is the candidate of the future and its promise.

Polls and other quantitative measurements have their place, but campaigns suffer when they're emphasized at the neglect of the qualitative. Those qualitative campaign factors resonate on a number of conscious and unconscious levels, the way musical notes resonate with heard and unheard overtones. When they clash they make people uncomfortable.

In other words, a campaign isn't just an input/output model in the systems theory sense. It's also a work of art. It needs a literary or artistic coherence just as much as it needs an analytical foundation of policies and polling - and ideally, the two should operate in harmony.

For lack of a better term, let's go neologistic and call these overtones a "metacampaign." Metacampaigns aren't about policy. After all, campaign isn't just about itself anymore than a John Ford western is just about cowboys. If a "campaign" - the overt statements and policy positions of a candidate - conflicts with its own "metacampaign," the result is what anthropologist Gregory Bateson called a "double bind."

When Bateson used the term "double bind" he was describing the emotional trap family members are placed in when they're told something verbally (e.g. "I love you no matter what you do") that is contradicted by nonverbal messages. While this doesn't cause schizophrenia, as Bateson originally thought, it can certainly create problems. And it can exist in larger social groupings than the family.

While some of the reasons for Obama's current poll standings have been identified, there's been little or no discussion of the double bind issue. His campaign and his "metacampaign" have sometimes seemed out of sync. That's created a cognitive dissonance that can prevent people from becoming fully comfortable with him.

It's premature to suggest he can no longer win, as some Washington insiders are now saying (although if he doesn't act quickly that 'conventional wisdom' could become one more datum that gets fed into the public imagination.) But if reports like this one are accurate, his contributors are getting worried and are stepping up the pressure on him. That could cause him to replace one double bind with another by going on the offensive the way any traditional politician would.

The Obama "campaign" has made some understandable choices. Since he is African American and relatively young, they've elected to present him as conciliatory, as a unifier, and as a compassionate but cerebral figure. That makes good political sense, and it appears to suit his personality. But it's been done in a way that conflicts with his 'metacampaign,' which clearly identifies him as a figure of dramatic if not revolutionary change. Excess of caution, which might be seen as judicious in another candidate, reads as something approaching insincerity in Obama's case (even though it's probably exactly the opposite - to this outsider, it appears to reflect a genuinely judicious and contemplative nature.)

Fortunately for Obama, recent history gives us a precedent for handling this kind of campaign/metacampaign dissonance: Bill Clinton. If campaigns are works of art, Obama would do well to learn from the best artist of our time. Bill Clinton delivered the DLC message on many issues of substance, especially in his re-election campaign, yet managed to do so in a way that didn't conflict with his 'metacampaign' symbolism (which in many ways resembled Obama's.) He was able to preach centrism and still excite the electorate, because he was able to coordinate his change-oriented 'metacampaign' with his centrist speeches.

How can you talk about school uniforms and still appear dynamic? Bill found a way, by tapping into his own empathetic streak. Because he used school uniforms as an expression of warmth and compassion, rather than rigidity and control, this expression of social conversatism harmonized with the "new-style politics" image he conveyed.

Whether consciously or instinctively, President Clinton found a way to coordinate his campaign message with his metacampaign. The eye contact, the expressions of human concern, the lip-biting - people made fun of them, but they worked. They created harmony between his nonverbal and verbal messages, and brought his audience out of its double bind.

Should Obama start biting his lip? Hardly. Should he respond to falling numbers by going on the attack against Hillary, as he has begun to do? Yes - but carefully. He has to differentiate himself on both substance and symbolism. He has to take on her key differentiator - 'experience,' which as used by her campaign really means 'eight years of proximity to Presidential power.'

That means taking on the DLC-driven politics of the 1990s head-on. That means taking on lobbyists and consultants directly - including Blackwater lobbyists. And that means taking on the Big Dog - that is, Bill Clinton - in the right fashion. Obama's recent attack on "triangulation and poll-driven politics" is precisely the kind of thing he needs to do to gain ground. Yet Obama's kind of change should not be seen adversarial or "political," that is, based on old conflict paradigms. In other words, while his politics will essentially be progressive, he should be conveying this theme: Neither left or right, but up.

So he needs to confront the triangulation issue head-on, as he's doing. And Bill gave him a model he can now use against Hillary: When Bill thanked and "honored" President Bush in their debate for his years of service, it was a loving kiss of dismissal. Obama must eventually find a way to administer the same tender farewell to the former President and First Lady, without alienating them and their supporters, if he is to win the nomination.

But here is what's even more important than any adversarial strategy: Obama needs to introduce some exciting, new ideas that transcend the classic left/right paradigm. He could take on global warming as a cause that defines our national purpose, the way that the WPA did in the 1930's and reaching the moon did in the 1960's. He could adopt a new direction on national security that draws upon the best and not the worst of who we are as a nation.

And there's one issue where Obama has already drawn a clear policy distinction between himself and his rivals, including Sen. Clinton: healthcare. Obama can use the mandate issue, and healthcare in general, to differentiate himself as the "opportunity candidate," a position that fits with his youthful image and future-based orientation.

He also needs to show why he, and not Hillary, would be a better candidate against Giuliani. And lastly, he needs to show how he can excite the Democratic base before Chris Dodd or another dark-horse candidate takes that opportunity from him. (Sen. Clinton can neutralize this kind of threat from Obama and others by shifting her strategy and abandoning triangulation, which would also help align her campaign and metacampaign - but there's no sign at this point that she will.)

Obama needs to reframe his race with Hillary, and he needs to find those core issues that differentiate him from all his competitors. But he needs to act soon. Time is not on his side.