This website uses cookies and similar technologies to understand visitors' experiences. By continuing to use this website, you accept our use of cookies and similar technologies,Terms of Use, and Privacy Policy.

Jun 25 2008 - 11:47 AM
Obama and Media: A Match Made In Political Heaven?
Barack Obama's resounding keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was his introduction to the American public and political scene. His message of togetherness, political accountability and individual responsibility made him an overnight sensation and a serious candidate for more prestigious office at a time when he was just a state senator from Illinois. The national convention was the ideal stage for a young (politically speaking) ambitious politician bent on perfecting the union. The mass media has been used by many politicians as a career launching pad and Obama is no exception.

The mass media has enormous control over the kinds of politicians and candidates it wants to cover. The bulk of the mass media is owned by private corporations whose only aim is to generate profit. Politics, as a form of entertainment, is boring and doesn't receive the viewers needed to draw in advertisers, who pay huge amounts of money for airtime. The national convention, among a few other political events such as the State of the Union, does receive quality airtime because it shapes how both political parties will gear up for the general election. The speeches are often passionate and can make or break a political career. Barack Obama has used the mass media, in the form of his keynote speech at the national convention, to espouse his goals and aspirations for America and he has used the momentum from that night in Boston to launch a successful bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate and a run for the American presidency.

The national conventions of both political parties are the parties' first formal introduction to the general American public and a chance for them to release their platforms and agenda. The person chosen to deliver the keynote speech often represents the views or image the party wants to present to the general public. The timing of the keynote speech, during primetime where most Americans watch television, is also significant because it means that people will be watching and listening to the speech. This is the ethos that has come to symbolize national conventions in the contemporary era.

On July 27, 2004, before thousands of listeners and a watching audience, Barack Obama stood before the podium at the Fleet Center in Boston to deliver the keynote speech for the Democratic Party and its presidential nominee John Kerry. For few outside Illinois, Obama was a novice: he had no political experience nor did he hold a major political post. Obama outlined the major themes of his speech right from the onset. His reference to coming from the “Land of [Abraham] Lincoln” comes with many favorable connotations. Obama later references Thomas Jefferson when he notes that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson and Lincoln represented the two themes that were apparent throughout the speech: racial harmony and equality. The former was one of the authors who wrote the brilliant words of the Declaration of Independence, which emphasized equality for all men while the latter was instrumental in preserving the union during and after the Civil War and has been credited by historians for his influence on easing the racial tensions that characterized that period in American history.

At the time of the speech, Obama was in the midst of a campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate and used the occasion to delineate his plans for America as a whole. The son of a Kenyan father and a Caucasian American mother, Obama used his mixed race to highlight his fears of race and how our problems as a nation are collective as one: “E pluribus unum” (Latin for “out of many, one). In David A. Frank notes that “Obama's speech drew from his multiracial background to craft a speech designed to bridge the divides between and among ethnic groups.” As a mixed race politician delivering a keynote speech at a national convention, race had to be a part of his message; but unlike many before him, he didn't use the occasion to criticize the status quo. Obama insisted that our needs are all the same regardless of which side of the racial divide we fall. We have the same problems and the only solution is working together as one. He states “there's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.”

The speech has been aptly dubbed “The Audacity of Hope,” because Obama espoused a feeling that what affects a part of the population affects us all, including Obama, the concerned citizen. He proclaims “if there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there is a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for their prescription drugs, and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandparent. If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.” By placing himself in the shoes of the ordinary American, Obama deviates from the notion that lawmakers are not affected by policies. This togetherness is binding to every American who wants to see America fulfill its promise of a perfect union. “Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?” asked Obama. He clearly chose the latter because his message of hope transcended every aspect of American society: education, politics and big business, among others.

As a candidate vying for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Obama was well aware of the opportunity presented to him that night in Boston. The media works on seven news factors: novelty, timeliness, proximity, drama, familiarity, conflict and visuals. Obama knew that he had to fulfill at least a few, if not, all of the seven news factors if his speech was to bring hope to America. His message of hope and government accountability was a welcomed relief from the negativity that often characterizes presidential campaigns. He was a new and youthful face that countered the image of politicians as old and gray. In an age where appearance and pictures account for a lot of the media coverage, Obama presented himself as a grateful up and comer ready to fight with America as one for the challenges ahead.

The response to Obama's keynote speech was overwhelming. All corners of the political spectrum were quick to heap praise on the Illinois state senator and in doing so, the Democratic Party found its new superstar. Obama's arrival on the national scene couldn't have occurred at a more precious time for the Democratic Party. They were the minority party in both chambers of Congress and their nominee John Kerry (whom Obama praised in his keynote speech) would eventually lose to incumbent Republican president George W. Bush. The party needed someone fresh, with hopes and aspirations that will appeal to the masses and in Obama, they found their man.

In her article, “A Dem Up-and-Comer Arrives,” Alexandra Starr notes that Obama's political rise started when he “trashed his competition in a tough Democratic Senate primary [in Illinois]” in March of 2004. It was following his primary success that the party began having hopes for Obama and as such chose him to deliver the keynote speech at its convention. Starr declares that “Obama's address wasn't just his maiden voyage on the national stage but also his official anointment as the party's brightest rising star.” Since he was the new kid on the block, Obama received considerable media coverage for his senatorial race with Republican candidate Alan Keyes. Keyes was up against a rising star and Obama's overwhelming victory, 70% to 27%, underlined his status as an unstoppable political star.

Following his keynote speech, Obama was everywhere aiding the Democratic cause. He raised $268,000 for Democratic candidates in close races and was seen delivering speeches everywhere. Suddenly, he became the man everyone wanted on their side, even more amazing considering the fact he held no national office. During his campaign for the U.S. Senate, Obama again played on the themes he noted in his speech at the national convention. The Economist noted that “to win his seat, Mr. Obama had to appeal not only to inner-city blacks and white liberals, but also to suburbanites and rural voters downstate. Here he showed his other side: ambitious, disciplined, willing to downplay his exotic background and focus on bread-and-butter issues.”

His rising popularity not only won him a seat in the U.S. Senate, the fifth African American to ever serve in the history of the U.S. Senate, but also led to talks in political and media circles as a potential presidential candidate. Alexandra Starr notes that Obama's eventual seat in the U.S. Senate “could be a stepping stone to even bigger things,” namely the American presidency. concurred with Starr's assessment of Obama's political ambitions by noting that Obama's Chicago constituents hope that “he may one day become America's first black president.” The rising expectations coupled with the media coverage heaped further pressure on Obama from the day he stepped foot on Capitol Hill to run for the presidency.

Though the bulk of his admirers and supporters wanted him to run for the president, Obama faced a political dilemma: he had no national political experience. He could run on the momentum that he was still carrying from that fateful night in Boston or wait another four years (or eight years if the Democrats win the White House), by which his momentum will have been a distant memory. Obama drew inspiration from the hopeful message of his keynote speech to declare his intentions to run for the presidency of the United States. He lacked experience, but he had hope for every American, regardless of race, social class and sexual orientation, among others.

The media has risen to become presidential kingmakers. It is essentially the mass media who dictate how the presidential candidates will run their campaigns and who will emerge as frontrunners. The presidential election is no longer about political parties as many Americans now look to the mass media for help in choosing their candidate. Every presidential candidate now has a media strategist who is well informed about the importance of the media on the race. They gear their campaigns to accommodate the seven news factors. Obama has been the media darling since the night of his keynote speech and though he lacked experience, he carried the momentum as a new star capable of breaking the traditional political establishment in the White House.

One of the major occurrences that the mass media pays particular attention to on the campaign trail is sounds bites and campaign themes. Obama's presidential campaign has been no exception. His overriding themes have been hope and change, two perfect sound bites that are catchy and bring to mind positive thoughts. As a politician who has ran prior campaigns, Obama is aware of the media's vast influence on the American political scene. He is keenly aware of the media's fascination with him and his candidacy and has used the media, namely speeches, in the course of his presidential campaign to remind them why they fell in love with him four years ago. As aforementioned, a politician can only stay the media darling for so long and even Obama's political opponents for the White House are hoping his luck with the media runs out soon.

In his article “The Audacity of Hype,” James Taranto notes that prior to the Iowa caucus at the turn of the new year, the Clinton campaign “had miscalculated the endurance and depth of what they called the Obama phenomenon.” The Clinton campaign had hoped voters will question Obama's inexperience and reporters will attack his voting record and personal character. The Clinton campaign had even went as far to indicate that should Obama gain the Democratic nominee and lose to John McCain in the general election in November, the media will be part of the blame because they haven't questioned or critiqued Obama's political record or experience. Taranto observed how the elite media institutions were quick to note the Obama phenomenon. “There is no getting around it, this man who emerged triumphant from the Iowa caucuses is something unusual in American politics,” claimed the New York Times while the Washington Post noted that “Obama is riding a very big wave, spreading consternation and bewilderment through the ranks of Clinton supporters here struggling to make sense of what is unfolding before them.”

In the course of Obama's campaign, a media firestorm brewed over the racially motivated comments of his pastor Jeremiah Wright. For the first time in his affectionate relationship with the media, Obama was at the center of a firestorm. Again, Obama will use the media, again in the form of a speech, to quell that firestorm. His speech on race at the National Constitution Center, “near the statues of the founding fathers who signed the document declaring that all men are created equal,” highlighted Obama's use of the media. The content of the speech is another subject altogether, but when the seemingly endless relationship with Obama and the media showed signs of crack, he prominently rose to deliver his most important speech in front of an eager American public.

In the final analysis, time will tell when the media's fascination with Barack Obama will end. He has, in his brief national political career, used the media at every stage to maintain his relationship with the media. His keynote speech in Boston made him a political superstar who transcended age, race, and political experience. He convinced America that everyone had a part to play in order for her to perfect the union. It is this hope that he left America with that night in Boston and it is with that hope that he continues his candidacy for the most visible job in the world. The media has been there every step of the way to cover him and he has been there every time because he knows they will listen and report when he speaks.

Posted in: Meet the Staff|By: George Nantwi|32123 Reads