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McCain and Obama on Display
The economy's role in constructing a presidential image
Michael Solis (msolis)     Print Article 
Published 2008-09-30 08:46 (KST)   
After last Friday's presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, it became clear that both candidates have taken thorough, although not necessarily vigilant, steps to present more than just their messages to the American people. Now the candidates' images are playing an increasingly influential role in determining the forthcoming winner of the White House.

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Throughout the campaign, McCain has addressed image by denigrating Obama's comparative star-power. For McCain, something had to explain Obama's resonating popularity with American youth as well as endorsements from famous celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, George Clooney, and Oprah Winfrey. The star-support is by no means inconsequential. Oprah, for instance, boasts the largest audience on daytime television with over 7 million loyal viewers and raised an estimated $3 million for the Obama campaign during a fundraiser at her California home.

McCain's attacks on Obama's ostensible celebrity-status did not prevent him from collecting his own Hollywood-sized checks from lesser-known actors. The relative lack of star-power may have been one of the reasons why McCain chose to air disparaging television ads comparing Obama to celebrities like Brittany Spears and Paris Hilton. Although devoid of substance, the image-based approach was affective in raising McCain's numbers at the polls and in attracting heightened media attention to his campaign.

But the celebrity attacks stopped after McCain made another image-based decision. With his selection of the youthful governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, as his vice-presidential running mate, McCain made a deliberate attempt to breathe life back into his campaign by finding a Barack Obama of his very own. And breathe life it did, as Palin rose rapidly to political stardom following her rousing speech at the Republican National Convention.

But since then the Palin image has begun to blink... and blink... and blink. Aside from family issues concerning the pregnancy of her 17-year-old daughter and alleged firing scandals, Palin's star has faded with what both Democrats and Republicans recognize as remarkably poor performances in interviews with Charles Gibson from ABC and Katie Couric from CBS . In the former, Palin was unable to define the "Bush Doctrine" and boasted Alaska's proximity to Russia as a basis of her foreign policy credentials. In the latter, when asked to describe ways that McCain has reformed business on Wall Street during his 26 years in Congress, she replied "I'll try to find you some and I'll bring them to you."

Palin's inability to identify what McCain has done to reform the broken system of US capitalism is telling. On Sept. 15, one day after former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan referred to the current US credit squeeze as a "once-in-a-century" financial crisis, McCain continued to reiterate that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." McCain's stubbornness in defending the assertion was not aided by his failure to defend Obama's comment during the debate that McCain has voted for almost all of Bush's proposed budgets.

The pattern of McCain is such that when his poll numbers go down, he resorts to gambling with image in order to get them back up. In the case of choosing Palin, he was successful. More recently, though, McCain's decision to "suspend" his campaign and to not take part in the first presidential debate flopped. Now McCain is running out of wild cards, and if he fails to convince the American people that he is capable of summoning a phoenix from the ashes of the US economy, then he is going to have to do something even more outlandish to claim the presidency.

Obama, on the other hand, has maintained his image with a more steady hand. However, stability is not necessarily what attracts voters, as it leaves Obama appearing less aggressive and militant compared to his rival. During the debate, for instance, Obama held his own on international affairs but failed to respond forcefully to McCain's insistence that Obama was inexperienced and lacked understanding of global and military issues. Obama did not sustain a powerful offensive and proceeded to lecture rather than combat. He came to the debate ready and able to out-fact and to out-intellectualize McCain, but such a strategy alone will not deliver the one-two punch necessary to clinch a clear victory.

Given the current economic crisis, Obama and McCain only have to turn to history to understand how important the economy can be in shaping their public images and in affecting the outcome of the election. Much like the 1992 presidential campaign between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, the 2008 campaign is breaking down into an "It's the economy, stupid" game. The phrase, which Clinton coined after the United States had undergone an economic recession, successfully convinced voters that Clinton was more prepared to manage the economy than an incumbent president who had overseen its decline.

With the United States facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, voters have identified the economy as the single most important issue of the elections. Its power is such that it has the capacity to trump the other contentious cards raised throughout the campaign such as race, gender, and religion. Given Obama's current lead over McCain in the polls, it seems that a significant number of voters are beginning to hold Obama's intellectualism and comparative fluency in economics as cause to vote Democratic. Still, what both candidates do from here is pivotal.

All Obama needs is the phrase. He has two more debates to deliver one that could solidify his image as a superior to McCain on all issues economy. McCain, on the other hand, has to either come up with an even more marketable phrase of his own, which is unlikely given his campaign's comparative lack of creativity, or he can do something even more remarkable -- like find and slay Osama bin Laden with his bare hands.

Perhaps "the maverick" should consider re-suspending his campaign for a witch-hunt?

Do you think Sarah Palin is a good VP selection for McCain?  (2008-09-03 ~ 2008-10-31)
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©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Michael Solis

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