The Campaign Spot

Obama’s Comfort With Crowds, and Difficulty Without Them

When I mention Obama’s presidential campaign, what image comes to your mind? Okay, you’re probably a conservative bunch, so maybe you think of Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers, hope, change, Joe Biden urging a man in a wheelchair to stand up, etc.

But my guess is a lot of folks across the political spectrum would think of Obama’s speeches, most often delivered in packed arenas and large public parks and the convention speech at Invesco Field. In other words, the image most commonly associated with Obama was he, at the center of the stage, all eyes and cameras on him, surrounded by a massive crowd with everyone chanting, “yes, we can” and such.

It was not him talking to people one-on-one, not the diner handshakes or the pancake-flipping breakfast that ate Gary Bauer or trudging through snow shaking hands on a Des Moines street. This is not to say Obama didn’t do these sorts of events, just that these smaller, quieter moments were not the ones that were decisive or central to Obama and his effort.

In fact, Obama’s worst moments on the campaign trail tended to be when he actually talked to voters individually or in small groups: telling Joe the Plumber he wanted to spread the wealth around, telling San Francisco donors why small town folks clung bitterly to guns and religion, his lament of “why can’t I eat my waffle?” at a Scranton diner. It’s probably why the “Celebrity” ad worked for a while; as much as the public admires celebrities, they’re seen as apart and different; there’s always that velvet rope separating the elevated and special folk from us commoners. Obama very clearly didn’t campaign as your next-door-neighbor; he campaigned as a secular messiah, the man declared “The One” by no less a cultural authority than Oprah.

Very few of the most memorable moments from Obama’s successful campaign involve him and another person, one-on-one or in a small group; generally it was he, alone, standing before the masses and keeping them enthralled.

I talked about this a bit in the Morning Jolt; the 1992 or 1996-era Bill Clinton could have won over Joe the Plumber, I suspect, or at least have left him laughing. Obama is one of those strange personalities more comfortable, and more charismatic, on a stage with thousands of people watching him than with someone right in front of him.

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