Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Obama on McCain's Favorite Table

"Pinball Wizard"

Even on my favorite table
He can beat my best
His disciples lead him in
And he just does the rest . . .

That deaf dumb and blind kind
Sure plays a mean pin ball.!!!!!

The Who

Barack Obama--pinball wizard?

In a way, the U. S. is going to see whether Barack Obama is so far ahead of John McCain as a presidential candidate that he can look better than McCain in McCain's best environment.

John McCain is a terrible public speaker, doesn't have huge amounts of money for campaign advertising, and is pretty clueless about organizing large scale political campaigns. But McCain does excels in townhall meetings. So McCain sought to minimize his disadvantages during the campaign by challenging Obama to hold a series of townhall meetings with him.

And Obama has at least provisionally accepted the challenge.

In townhall meetings, candidates usually take questions from the audience in a fairly informal atmosphere. The questions from the audience usually aren't that tough or pointed. But doing townhall meetings can still be difficult. Townhall audiences care a lot more about the substance of issues than the media. As a result, candidates have to be sure-footed on the issues in a way that they don't really have to be with the media.

Likewise, townhall audiences don't care about the things that obcess the media. They're not concerned so much about the horserace or electability. They also don't care about scoring "gotcha" questions like the Tim Russert query about licenses for illegal aliens that started Hillary Clinton's slide. In a certain way, this makes townhall meetings easier for candidates because they feel less of the obvious pressure generated by the media. But townhall audiences can also wrongfoot candidates who are used to fending off the standard media questions.

The main difficulty with townhall meetings for candidates is that members of the audience often frame their questions in terms intense personal feelings, tragic events, or genuinely insoluble problems. In this context, presidential candidates are expected to frame their answer in terms of three imperatives--demonstrating empathy for the questioner, providing a substantive answer, and manuevering for political advantage. Candidates need to do all of these things simultaneously and they need to make it look easy and sincere.

In other words, doing townhall meetings effectively requires a real gift for impromptu political theater.

That's why townhall meetings were Bill Clinton's natural environment. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton showed that he had a gift for projecting empathy through a television screen, was a master of policy detail, and was nimble on his feet. He looked great while George Bush I looked bored and detached while he was checking his watch.

John McCain has done his best in townhall environments during the Republican primaries has reason to believe that he could outshine Barack Obama in townhall settings because Obama hasn't exactly shined during debates.

But even on McCain's favorite table, Obama will probably beat his best. During the Republican primaries, McCain did townhall meetings that had three characteristics that will apply to his townhall meetings with Obama: 1. McCain was by himself and could therefore revel in the narcissism of the moment; 2. McCain was interacting with Republican audiences
3. McCain was getting questions about Republican issues.

That's not going to apply. During a townhall with Barack Obama, McCain isn't going to be the sole object of attention. Instead, he'll be at a disadvantage because he'll have to compete for attention with a formidable scene-stealer like Obama. The other thing is that McCain is going to be getting questions from Democrats and independents about health care, the economy, global warming and other issues that he's not particularly interested in. Unless McCain has a lot of new tricks up his sleeve, there's a good chance that his very stale version of the standard Republican applause lines isn't going to work very well.

Even on McCain's favorite table, Obama has to be a favorite to look better and that's probably why Obama was so eager to take McCain up on his challenge.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So I guess you've thrown Billary under the bus?