Law in Contemporary Society

Combating Obama's Creed

-- By AdamCarlis - 4 April 2008


This season's Democratic primary showcased two gifted politicians, providing insight into how campaigns rise and fall on their ability to build and maintain creeds that capture the widest possible audience.

The Emergence of Hope

Edwards and Obama interrupted Clinton's march to the nomination. By speaking compellingly about change, they forced Clinton to justify her candidacy, which she did by citing experience and preparation for the job. Competing creeds quickly emerged.

Edwards would fight for change, championing the working-class. That tent, however, wasn't big enough. While energizing many, it alienated others. Moderates and the Wall Street crowd were turned off. Perhaps overestimating voter animosity towards big business, Edwards pitched a pop tent and not enough voters could fit inside.

Simultaneously, Obama pitched a bigger tent. He campaigned for "One America," arguing that change comes from collaboration and promising reconciliation. He opened the door wide enough for everyone to fit inside. Furthermore, his campaign, at least according to supporters, somehow "transcends race." Obama is a black man who is not angry at white America. Instead of demanding and confronting, he articulates a message of unity, healing, and progress. He represents an opportunity to move past racial divisiveness, something both necessary to maintaining the "One America" creed and part of what makes it desirable to a broad audience (particularly white voters looking for redemption from sin).

Additionally, by staying above detail-drudgery, Obama has been able to maintain a creed that is against the things almost everyone is against and for the things almost everyone is for. Rather than policy initiatives, his tent is held aloft by promises of a different type of politics. While voters may disagree over the details of a healthcare plan or the capital gains tax, almost everyone supports broad themes of collaboration and inclusiveness. As a result, Obama is most effective when he speaks broadly of inclusive change and least effective when it appears, even for a moment, that he might not actually represent the transcendent change he calls for.

Clinton's Response

Misguided Attacks

Clinton's early attacks failed to undermine the basic tenants of Obama's creed.

First, Clinton mocked Obama's creed, arguing that change and hope are just words. While perhaps true, this amounted to arguing that the wizard was just a man, without first pulling back the curtain. She failed to target the ideas that support Obama's creed and so was unsuccessful.

Next, Clinton argued that she, too, represented change. While obviously true, Clinton had to take a back seat on the issue. Not only was she late to show, but electing a woman proved less appealing than moving beyond racial divisions. Additionally, Clinton's change appeared to be less about coming together than it was about being the first female president. While Obama doesn't talk about being the first black president (such a claim would undermine his creed's assertion that racial divisions are unimportant), Clinton trumpeted her gender as a rationale for her presidency. This tactic, while slightly broadening Clinton's appeal, failed to undermine the basic premise of Obama's creed and, in fact, may have highlighted key differences in their respective approaches in a way that favored Obama. As a result, Obama remained unwounded.

Holes in the Tent

Since Texas and Ohio, however, the Clinton campaign has done a better job undermining the building blocks of Obama's creed.

First, Clinton publicly discussed Obama as a potential Vice President as if to say, "You can have 'change,' feel good about bridging the chasms that divide us, and still vote for me." Obama, sensing potential damage to the central premise of his campaign, immediately rejected the VP job. Still, the seed was planted that perhaps Clinton could deliver on both her promise of leadership and Obama's promise of "One America."

Second, the Clinton campaign directly poked a hole in the idea that Obama is somehow above the corrupting influence of politics. Despite her own shady land deals, Clinton pushed the Tony Rezko story, arguing that Obama is part of the same political muck that plagues Washington. This was a perfect attack on Obama's creed since it had the potential to undermine a basic premise of his creed and therefore change the way voters perceived him. His supporters, enamored with a departure from politics as usual, were left questioning whether Obama was all that he claimed to be.

Recently, Clinton shook the very foundation of Obama's creed by questioning whether he transcends race. By highlighting his pastor's divisive words, Clinton raised the question whether, deep down, Obama is actually an angry black man, poised to spill the secret shame of racism in this country. For white voters, such a charge brings with it serious misgivings. No longer was Obama a fearless leader ready to move the country beyond its racial divide. Instead, his campaign became, as Bill Clinton argued weeks ago, in many ways indistinguishable from Jesse Jackson's. Without racial unity and reconciliation, "One America" becomes many Americas again and the hole in the tent let votes escape. Obama's immediate damage control, including a major address on race, may have stopped the bleeding. Nevertheless, successfully wounding Obama invigorated Clinton's campaign and cleared a path for future attacks.

Since then, Clinton has continued to pick away at Obama's creed and for the first time she has increased his negatives. Unfortunately for Clinton, her negatives have increased as well. Perhaps voters, hopes dashed by Clinton's attacks, have rejected her for bursting their bubble. Perhaps going negative, particularly outside of policy, has turned people off. Either way, Clinton will need to continue to undermine Obama's creed without being seen as an avatar of divisiveness destroying a symbol of hope.


Time is on Obama's side and recent endorsements may re-entrench the idea that his appeal crosses racial lines. Regardless, the battle between these two politicians with similar politics, but quite different politicking, has given us insight into what it takes to cobble together, defend, and maintain a sufficiently broad creed.

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r43 - 12 Jan 2009 - 22:40:41 - IanSullivan
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