If you are reading this, you are not the target of Senator Obama’s 30-minute media buy. Which surely means, since I am writing, that neither am I the target. Good thing, too — I was disappointed.
Oh, sure, my eyes teared up at the right moments, and I enjoyed the homespun blues guitar. As commercials go, it was fine. And as infomercials go, it was a knockout. What I am disappointed by, on behalf of the civic life of America, is the squandered opportunity.
Set aside, for the moment, whom you prefer to vote for (or have already voted for) in the upcoming “historic presidential election.” The fact remains that one candidate is so dominating the current electoral scene that he is able to insert a 30-minute unfiltered message into almost all of prime time. He is a candidate who looks and talks differently than most other political figures cluttering the landscape. His charisma is undeniable, recalling orators of yore. He’s smart.
At his best, this candidate preaches (and it is preaching) a kind of politics that rests on a partnership between the leaders and the led, where citizens aren’t customers of government but are citizens, who hold responsibilities as well as rights. This at times seems a revolutionary idea, coming as it does at a time when politics itself seems exhausted, the rhetoric ground down by the accretion of promise after promise.
Americans know that they themselves can do better, that they can be better citizens. I hear it as I talk to people throughout the nation. Most would grade themselves a “B” in terms of citizenship, if that. They’re waiting for an invitation to step up, and many observers see Obama’s candidacy as just such an opportunity.
But he played it safe, sticking to the well-worn talking points and really, it seems, just hoping to make his points through repetition. I guess it is hard to fault someone in Sen. Obama’s position for steering a course that minimizes mistakes. After all, he’s trying to close the deal, and that’s a job not yet done.
But imagine if Sen. Obama’s campaign had instead seen these thirty minutes as an opportunity — not for his own campaign, but for the American people. He might have taken a different tack.
He might have gathered ten Americans from different walks of life — including, especially, people with whom he disagrees — and had a conversation with them. During this conversation he might not have spent the time trying to sell his candidacy, but instead to give voice to ordinary people, to probe what they want the public square to look and feel like. He could have even asked them: What will you do, to make this a better nation? This could have been a moment in which to make manifest the very deal Obama seems to want between government and citizens, an equal partnership.
Or, maybe, he might have spent the time weighing the relative merits of his and his opponent’s world views. He might have asked a co-host to present opposing views not in a demonic way, but with their best feet forward. After all, Sen. McCain is a serious person and his proposals are worth taking seriously. Why not examine them at their best, and explain why notwithstanding their good points, Obama would go in another direction? And why not point out the downsides of Obama’s own proposals — for everyone knows that there are upsides and downsides. This would just be leveling with the American people and telling them what they already know in their gut: there is no silver bullet and no one answer is undeniably the right one. This could have been a moment when the American electorate were finally being treated as the grown-ups they are.
Instead, Sen. Obama’s campaign chose to sell us a grill and a set of knives. It probably did his campaign good and it’s unlikely that it hurt.
But it could have been so much more.