Thursday, September 11, 2008

People Want to Feel Good -- And Why Obama's Race is an Issue

When I look at politics, the key in how people vote seems to me that people want to feel good and they want to feel good about themselves. In the beginning, the Obama campaign tapped into this feeling by giving people a sense of the hope and change that they wanted. I think they have lost part of that lately. But the key to this insight, that people want to feel good about themselves, informs how the Dems can attack both the GOP and Sarah Palin.

It's an insight which may seem obvious, but I think it isn't talked about often enough and it also explains a lot of what happens in races and what can be done. That said, I want to point out that when I look at attack ads, etc., I'm looking from a pragmatic standpoint. I wish it wasn't what won elections but it is. If what mattered was policy, then Obama would be ahead by 10 points like the Dems are nationally. In a future post I'll explain why I think the nation votes the way it does and what can be done to change that -- to make the race actually about issues.

First, as for the GOP. I see a slight problem in the Democrat strategy of attacking the GOP for their bad policies -- and that's because people voted for them. People don't like to be wrong, so the Dems need to make an important distinction: the issue isn't that GOP policies are the wrong policies but rather that the GOP lied. In other words, the theme should be the GOP told you they would make you wealthier and safer but they were lying. You weren't wrong to believe them then -- but you'd be wrong to believe them now. I think this could be more of the problem than what David Brooks writes about in his op-ed -- he sees the issue as being that Obama has become too conservative in his campaign decisions -- calling for policy change instead of regime change. (

This brings us to Palin. I don't think people are so excited about her because they actually think "wow, I see myself in her, and I should be President." Rather, I think people identify with her and think "wow, I see myself in her, that makes me feel really good about myself." Thus, the problem with attacking Palin isn't the fact that she's a woman or that she's currently popular. The problem is that people feel personally attacked -- even the bridge to nowhere reversal or firing her brother is irrelevant at this point -- people will shrug those issues off. People do not want someone attacked who makes them feel good about themselves. Thus, the key to attacking Palin is to make sure people realize she's not like them -- first she has to be different, then she can be attacked.

This is the issue with Obama's skin color. To a large number of Americans, he's already different enough. And I don't think it's simply that people won't vote for Obama because he's African American -- as Jacob Weisberg writes ( Certainly, those people out there exist. But also, I think a lot of people are more willing to accept attacks against Obama because it does not affect their own sense of personal worth. This is the key to the Republican label of Obama as elitist -- which is ridiculous and something I will address in a later post. By establishing Obama as different, it no longer reflects on people's own sense of self worth when Obama is put down.

So what is the key to attacking Palin (and McCain, for that matter)? I think first they have to be perceived as different -- then they can be attacked. Let's set up Palin as a crazy Alaskan separatist. Make her seem foreign and different to middle Americans -- I think it can be done -- then she can be attacked. Otherwise, don't attack her. This should be easier with McCain, who doesn't even know how many homes he owns. And don't forget, the Republicans used the same strategy last year when they attacked Kerry for being a "playboy" and had that great picture of him windsurfing. First they set him up with the "see, he's not like us" and then they can Swiftboat him.

In the meantime, I hope that admidst the message of how bad this economy is, the Obama campaign doesn't lose sight of the other important message: making people feel good.


J said...

This brings up the interesting point of "personal attacks". For example, attacking Obama based on his "celebrity" status is a clear personal attack with no merit on the issues. However I think bring into light personal issues that point out serious, blatant, literal hypocrisy are not only fair game, I think that they're necessary game.
I think Bristol Palin's story should be brought in full spotlight given that Sarah Palin has pushed for abstinence-only education. That's a wedge issue in this country, not a major wedge, but it's a wedge. If you want to give the parents the blame when some kid in the Bronx gets pregnant, we better damn well give educated, opinionated, and self-righteous political persona her due. Maybe she'll start banning sex as a public conversation so that her would never even find out what it was.

Anonymous said...

You bring up a great point. Somewhere along the line, for whatever reason, the majority of Americans have stopped believing that we should have a President who might be more intelligent than us, more well-spoken than us, and someone that we can admire and look up to...hence the election and re-election of Bush. Given the current state of the nation and Bush's 20% (maybe less) approval rating, Obama should be leading by a landslide based solely on policy. However, this is not the case, in fact, its a dead heat. Democrats need to change their way of thinking and learn how to play the game.