12/10/2007 09:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Anatomy of an Obama Photo Op

The following piece was produced by HuffPost's OffTheBus.


Obama's Nevada staff pulled off a brilliant little piece of communications magic to keep the Oprah bounce aloft one more day here. As someone who's almost never been around the communications side of campaigns, I was fascinated to watch the process unfold from the event to the nightly news.

A little past noon, right before a closed meeting with student organizers, Obama's staff had him sit down in front of local TV cameras to discuss Social Security with six hand-picked supporters who were mostly in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

Before the event, I watched as the local press dutifully and unenthusiastically set up their cameras and waited for Barack's arrival. These people are amazing: out of 280 million Americans, these reporters and camera people have to be the least excited about the presidential campaign. They had, "I'm so over this" written all over their faces.

2007-12-11-obamabefore.jpgIn just a few minutes, the room was transformed essentially into a TV set. The cameras faced one simulated reality (maybe of a work room at a policy think tank); and Barack, from his chair on the set, would face another reality: the cynical, bored reporters and camera people who would present his visit to the people of Nevada.

During the event itself, I was thinking, "This is a wash." But that just shows how little I know about the game of communications and the way illusion and truth are conveyed from photo op to television.

Barack seemed almost as unenthusiastic as the camera people. The back and forth between the six supporters and Barack could not have been slower or more low key. I caught at least one of the supporters' eyelids drooping from time to time. Barack asked each person individually about their family financial situation and what was on their mind regarding social security.

2007-12-11-obamatalking.jpgI was trained by the people from the same school of organizing that Obama came out of, and so I immediately recognized what he was doing: it was a community organizing meeting, and he was beginning with the standard first step of "listen to their issues."

Each person discussed their trials and tribulations. And after each one spoke, Barack would say, "Well, under my plan..." and spell out a whole bunch of details that I could not follow, and which I doubt any of the supporters could either.

I was having all kinds of conflicting emotions. As a former community organizer myself, I wanted Barack to stop going on about his plan (exactly the wrong thing to do if this were an organizing meeting) and instead to lay out an organizing plan in which we, the American people, could actually fix the problems these folks were brining up.

We all know that "plans" to fix problems as big as health care (which kept coming up) can only work if millions of people fight like hell to make them work. Obama should have been asking these people, "How hard are you going to fight with me once I'm elected?" and "Here's how that fight is going to go..." Not, "Well, in my plan..." Didn't Kerry lose because every sentence he ever said started with those words?

Also, maybe he was just tired from all that Oprah maddness of the past two days, but he really seemed down -- literally plodding along through all his multi-point plans as if not even he cared.

So, as I sat there next to an almost-snoring reporter, I was really feeling like I knew better than the staff behind this operation -- and all the Obama handlers.

2007-12-11-obamatv.jpgBut then, when I got home, and turned on the TV, I had to admit I was wrong.

It was the top story on the news, and the low-key policy discussion was the perfect complement to the Oprah madness stuff which (duh!) dominated the story. There was footage of throngs of South Carolina supporters, young people singing and dancing, Michelle and Oprah goofing around at the podium, musicians, etc... And then, just when John-Q-65-year-old-voter watching at home was about to turn off, then up pops Obama droning on very seriously about Social Security and health care.

2007-12-11-obamatv2.jpgThe TV news piece couldn't have been better for Obama. They repeated his policy talking points about a payroll tax on the wealthy to pay for Social Security and reported that the supporters present said they liked Obama not because of his policies but because, "he is the most trustworthy" of all the candidates. One of the supporters, from the post-interview events afterwards, was shown saying, "I used to support Hillary, really, I did."

In the post-event interviews with the reporters, everything the supporters said was great. But they didn't come off as overly-prepped or to be trying to stick to any talking points. I think the campaign just did a really good job picking sincere, personable Obama supporters. And despite his deadly policy wonking, Barack really did listen to these folks. He listened to them intently, patiently and sincerely, as any good community organizer would.

All in all, the Obama campaign's comms people hit it out of the park with this visit by getting a really solid news story to keep the "O-mentum" going. Let's just hope for his campaign's sake that he was a little more rousing with those student organizers that he met with later.