11.05.08

Cool Hand Barack

Obama proved to be positively George Bushian in his ability to stick relentlessly to message—the only thing that never changed was “change” itself.

God was clearly a Democrat this year. All manner of plot points in this longest-ever-running election went Obama’s way through no genius of his own: most especially a bipolar economy on meds (bundled loans, subprime mortgages) that quit masking a recession just in time. Last evening TV commentators were reduced to meteorologists marveling at the balmy weather in a Chicago Grant Park apparently usually pelted with snow and hail at this time of year? But one catch phrase of a tactic rolled out early on—Obama proving to be positively George Bushian in his ability to stick relentlessly to message (the only thing that never changed was “change” itself)—was a jokey bumper sticker that turned out to be the passkey to the savviest new-politics ploy of all: “No Drama.”

This was the first universal remote election: Obama wasn’t only in our living rooms, but in our bedrooms, bathroom, office, gym, SUVs.

The standard comparison to a medium picking its most appropriate messenger has always been the Kennedy-Nixon face-off in boxy black-white sets framed in fake Chinese lacquer cabinets to make them less techy, more polite: Nixon in close-up sweated too profusely; he failed the 1960 living room test. This year, old tech metaphors kept being recycled. Obama needed a half-hour infomercial so that folks would feel “comfortable with a black man in their living room.” But actually this was the first universal remote election: he wasn’t only in our living rooms, but in our bedrooms, bathroom, office, gym, SUVs; he was on flat screen, plasma, HD, and iPod; in such a 24-hour intimacy cycle, less proved to be more, minimal pattern-interrupts trumped baby kissing.

But none of the other candidates seemed to be there yet. Nearly two years ago, Obama slipped on his game face, his shiny black suit and white shirt with the pop up collar, and sauntered down the road to become the next Abe Lincoln. Along the way he encountered—or produced—some highly freaked out opponents. “He’s like one of those boyfriends from hell you just can’t get riled up about the charged issues in your relationship, he won’t engage,” was the assessment of a friend of mine, a single woman in Manhattan. Such was the psychodynamic that brought down Hillary Clinton. She wound herself up into an Almodovar diva of melodrama by the time it was all over: in an early debate lineup, snubbed him; in New Hampshire, shed a tear, in L.A. flirted. No response.  

McCain had gender on his side. Everyone loves a good war movie or knockout punch. McCain came on spoiling for a fight, picking up where Hillary (a fighter in her last, desperate, and most successful attempt at drama) left off. In the town hall format he circled his opponent, but Obama, leaning back on his stool, refused to circle back. In the split-screen debate, McCain was so hot under the collar his head looked about to pop off. Faced with all this zero-gradient politics, a message so smooth as to be indecipherable, McCain grew more and more retro: turning his clock back to refighting the 1932 election on the issue of “socialism.” The rest of his party fell in line so that by last Sunday night on CNBC Pat Buchanan was referencing Father Coughlin.

Before rolling into bed by 12:45 last night, with final election sound bites all exchanged, the talking heads of Manhattan were already onto the next thought balloon. From the more self-torturing—dark worries of assassination; from the more self-regarding—anticipated invites to the White House. But truly, if Obama’s steady state of a character is to be believed—and two years is a good test case—the Politics of Low Affect is about to become the Diplomacy of Low Affect. And the question mark in that far more eventful thought balloon: Will the Ahmadinejads of the world (Vice President Biden’s prediction) feel the need to get a rise by launching nuclear warheads? Or will all those soap-opera threats keep their red phones on vibrate, awaiting some text, any text, from the new house model, the too-cool-for-school leader of the future of the global network?

Brad Gooch is a professor of english at William Paterson University in New Jersey. His latest book, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor is due to be published in February 2009.