Home / Satire: Lessons in Ugly Politics: Breaking Obama

Satire: Lessons in Ugly Politics: Breaking Obama

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Students, welcome to the final exam for POLI 1019.666: Introducing Artificial Controversy Into Political Campaigns. Now that we’ve spent the semester talking about misdirection, partisan spin-doctoring, and focus-group nitpicking, we’re ready to evaluate what you’ve all learned.

Our topic for today’s exam:

Barack Obama’s political career.

Honestly, students, this shouldn’t be too hard. Don’t be fooled by Obama’s overwhelming media presence, because like all sudden celebrities, a good deal of his coverage is ambiguous, confused, or downright negative. And don’t be intimidated by his well-rounded background and his refreshingly honest approach to politics either… this isn’t some high school debate where issues and substance actually matter. This is the strange, pliable world of public discourse.

Really, students, there are two specific, tried-and-true directions you could take this assignment. I’ll go over them briefly below, so you can get a head start elaborating on them in new and creatively useless ways.

First: race.

It’s important to dwell on special-interest issues, even when they don’t figure significantly into the candidate’s platform or politics. Is Obama black? Certainly. Is he from Africa? Maybe. Is he a descendant of American slaves? That depends on your definition of “descent.”

As you can see, we have here a perfect opportunity to over-complicate a newly-announced presidential bid. Just take Debra Dickerson of Salon.com, a magazine whose content is usually annoyingly substantial. She discusses Obama thusly:

“I honestly can't look without feeling pity, and indeed mercy, at whites' need for absolution. For all our sakes, it seemed (again) best not to point out the obvious: You're not embracing a black man, a descendant of slaves. You're replacing the black man with an immigrant of recent African descent of whom you can approve without feeling either guilty or frightened” (Colorblind, Jan. 22, 2007)

She demonstrates seamlessly what we’re trying to get across in this course. She discusses Obama’s politics lightly, in passing, in order to come down hard on what she sees as the essential issue: his racial and cultural heritage. Despite being a proud Democrat, she uses these traditionally leftist concerns to undermine a Democratic candidate. That’s EXACTLY what we want to see!

This type of discussion is good in its own right, but it’s even better in that it draws other, more positive feedback into the same discussion. This is what certain political theorists called framing the debate, and Dickerson does a smashingly good job. Take a look at some subsequent posts on PopPolitics.com, like this one, which stutters on the same vague topics without ever looking at the actual source of Obama’s appeal.

This is an excellent starting point for crippling any promising left-leaning candidate. But it’s not the only direction to take this exam. Let’s look at another.

Second: experience.

The nice thing about Obama’s experience is that it sounds more important and more legitimate than his race. Discussing race, Republican critics are treading on thin ice because they always risk revealing racist tendencies. However, left- and right-leaning critics alike can discuss his experience and sound “objective” without actually looking at his platform, his issues, or his convictions. It’s an ideal red herring that looks like it’s right at the heart of the debate.

Now, experience isn’t as important as it looks… after all, arguably, the oldest politicians are the farthest out of touch, and the most mired in corruption. The most experienced politicians say the stupidest things, like Joe Biden’s tragically bad phrasing in his recent statements on the other candidates. Yet, "experience" is universally emphasized by the most important critics. This kind of paradox is what you have to focus on to mobilize genuine confusion.

What you should probably do is find clever ways to compare Obama’s campaign to Bush’s, despite the clear difference in platform between them. And you might even find a way to compare Obama with John F. Kennedy, and to make that comparison seem like a negative one, despite the ultimately positive influence Kennedy had on politics at home and in Vietnam. These kinds of comparisons can bring an extra level of debate to the table… debate that seems to bear on Obama’s campaign, even though it’s actually about other historical personalities with completely different perspectives on politics.

What you’re going to have to avoid, at all costs, to keep this question sufficiently complicated: the actual issues at stake, and the actual platform that makes Obama appealing to his constituency. I’ll mention two things here.

First: You don’t want to mention the attempts he makes to communicate personally with the public, through podcasts and cross-country travel. You’re also going to want to avoid talking about his attempts to make government finances public.

Second: it’s important to avoid discussing Obama’s diplomatic approach to the two-party system. You’ll want to stay away from his real-world approaches to family values and religion, and you’ll want to keep quiet about his policy of open discourse and reasonable conversation between groups with different, or opposed, agendas.

These two platform positions are called transparency and diplomacy, and they’re the principles we’re trying to get away from in this class. It’s important that we recognize them as the enemy and squash them.

Luckily, both the left and the right are getting a good head start on this, in both journalism and politics. Your obfuscation, misdirection, and confusification should be an easy task overall. This refreshing, well-argued, political campaign, based on genuine popular support and established political principles, can be squashed before it even begins.

Let’s get started. I recommend going straight for the comments on this article.

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  • Obama is just an opportunist. He got more coverage because he is half-black (Nigerian). He is not so much difference from the other democrats. At least they have better experience. I am not racist but come on you can talk nice thing all day on the podium but you can do anything if you don’t know what to do. NO vote for Obama. There are many other choices.

  • Blur guy

    I guess it’s alright to name my son Obama instead of Osama or Omama.

  • Hey, Doc, maybe it makes sense to be cynical in this forum, but if you start being cynical ABOUT this forum, you risk looking stupid.

    If there’s a travesty to identify, it’s that the self-proclaimed critical community is getting dismissive and cynical. That’s exactly what corporate media wants, and that’s why they portray American life as stupid and unreflective… cynical elitism puts us in the worst possible position to make a real impact on culture. Manufactured cynicism is manufactured consent for intellectuals.

    Or prove it to me. Show me the study that proves voters don’t understand why they’re voting. Show me that your cynicism is rooted in some sort of reality.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Thanks to the anti-intellectual way modern culture works, voters in America – and many other democracies – do indeed get the elected officials they deserve. Ask eight out of ten people at the polling station what the platform is of the candidate they intend to vote for – or even the candidate’s general political philosophy – and they won’t have the faintest clue. People rarely vote on the issues. They vote for someone because they always vote for that party, or because they want to get rid of the other guy, or because their candidate likes dogs, or because he was wearing a nice tie on TV the other night. Yet they know the birthdates and middle names of both of Britney Spears’s kids, or exactly what Oprah had for breakfast yesterday. You can’t call these people on their phony reasons for voting because they’d all just shuffle away from the polling station mumbling and confused, turnout would be down to 10%, and democracy would become even more of a travesty than it already is.
    The political parties know this. The media who cover the elections know this. Which is why nine-tenths of a candidacy is about presentation. It’s why most of the focus on Obama between now and November ’08 is going to be about the color of his skin, and about how he’s the first this, and the youngest that, and the least pasty the other. And why most people are going to have a hard time telling you what he actually stands for and exactly why they are going to go for Hillary rather than him. Or not. So if he does eventually become President, and because no-one was paying attention he turns out to be a live-chicken-eating, Inca-sun-god-worshipping maniac (although that would be fun), don’t come crying to me.
    But wait. I see that the last comment was posted four days ago. Which means the debate is over. And you’ve all lost interest and gone off to find out what Brad and Angelina are up to.

  • Emry

    “I actually had a dream last night that Obama had hired me as his campaign manager and I spent all my time trying to pick the right color sweaters for him to wear to compliment his skin tone.


    driveby tells a different story:


  • Aku

    “Americans get complacent, and they start voting on things like personality, instead of platform or politics.”

    When platforms are set aside like yesterday’s fashons and politics change daily, the only thing that endures is personality. Why should it be strange that people vote on that?

    “Jesse, the moral of your piece seems to be, no criticism of Obama is permitted.”

    Jesse seems to say the regular avenues of criticism are . . . misguided. I would tend to agree. There are probably much more subsitative criticisms to be made.

  • Can somebody else tell Baronius why that conclusion doesn’t follow from my blog post? I’m certainly not above the question, and I’ll be happy to answer, but I don’t have time right now, and I’d be interested in hearing somebody else’s take on it.

  • Baronius

    Jesse, the moral of your piece seems to be, no criticism of Obama is permitted.

  • moonraven


    You are just envious because I actually HAVE a life and live it doing productive projects for others.

    I know very well that you have not done squat because you have as much as smeared your lack of self-worth all over this site.

    Give me a break. And give my Mohawk ancestros one, too. WE have done nothing to deserve your self-loathing prattle.

  • Nancy

    Oh, almost all of these conversations do. If you read long enough you’ll see.

  • Holy crap… thanks for the comments, folks, and I’m already finding the forum controversy more interesting than the article above them.

    Moon – I didn’t take it too badly that you claim “Americans get the presidents they deserve”… in fact, it sounds like a truism, obvious to the point of being unremarkable. We’ve got BushCo because too many of us were stupid enough to buy it. Hopefully we’ll get something better when enough of us get smart enough to have some perspective. I (sure as fuck) didn’t vote for Bush, but I too might have been too indifferent about his victory back in 2000.

    And Nancy seems to agree on that point: as she says, Americans get complacent, and they start voting on things like personality, instead of platform or politics. It’s not until those points in the cycle where we’re tired of being fed bullshit that we do some purging. Hopefully, as Nancy says, that’s what’s happening right at the moment.

    We’re all smart, we all know how politics works… some of us choose to be cynically realistic about it, and some of us choose to be serve a hypothetical ideal on the horizon. How’d this turn into a confrontation of moral worth?

  • Nancy

    It’s easy & the coward’s way out to bitch & complain & sling shit from a distance. You haven’t “done” squat yourself except cop out/run away & then shoot off your mouth online. Your Mohawk ancestors must be spinning with shame for you.

    You’re all hot air & ego. You should have been a politician.

  • Nancy

    It’s easy & the coward’s way out to bitch & complain & sling shit from a distance. You haven’t “done” except cop out/run away. Your Mohawk ancestors must be spinning with shame for you.

  • moonraven

    The status of politicians has dropped so low because you fools vote for sleazeballs and war criminals.

    I assume those are the folks you admire.

    Ignorance is no excuse.

  • moonraven

    And just HOW do those parties GET those candidates?

    Junior high school civics–if it’s still being taught–should have given you a clue.

  • moonraven


    Don’t tell ME to keep my mouth shut. You haven’t done SQUAT. When you have accomplished even a decimal point of what I have, you can stop feeling wistful about the life you have wasted.

    At least I had the brains to leave the US–and put my energy into something that is not a lost cause–at least, not yet. And it’s a lot further south.

    Why do they call elections before counting absentee ballots? Why do they throw them away?

    Wise up.

  • Aku

    “For some time now, US voters have been getting the presidents they deserve.”

    On the contrary, the two parties get the candidates they deserve, and the rest of us have to live with the consequences.

  • Nancy

    Trying to inject quality into artificial political party constructs like a president or congressmaggot are a sisyphean battle, Moon, as you of all people should know. It’s like trying to restore a salmon stream; it takes generations sometimes to keep the pressure up & make sure the goal is not eroded by those who would misdirect it. The public of the US labors under special burdens. They’ve been trained from birth now for at least 2 generations to be easily distracted, unable to concentrate except for small, easily digested sound bites. They aren’t taught in schools anymore to think critically, to question authority; that’s a hard lesson to learn on your own. That so many do is testimony to their innate abilities that those in control can’t dampen. Every couple of generations, a new start is made to yank congress & the administration back to some semblence of honesty. It wears off eventually as people get complacent & congress/the WH occupant get arrogant & corrupt again. But then the public gets fed up & yanks the chain, despite all attempts by those in control to see they don’t thru lies & misdirection. It’s just a pity that so much devolves around the wandering attention of the MSM to keep the issues, lies, & misdirections in front of the public – but a few still get through. And the more the MSM fail, the more important it is that those smaller voices like those on this blogsite keep speaking up. People DO read, and as the elections in November proved, bit by bit, person by person, minds do change. The elections proved that. Even the preponderance of conservatives now disbelieve the Bush lies & propaganda.

    A good deal of the problem lies with the quality of those entering politics. Most of them are from a ruling class in which several generations are “used” to controlling – corporations, the public, whatever. The status of politicians has dropped so low, even used car salesmen stand higher in public estimation. No kid these days wants to grow up to be a politician, especially those who DO have integrity & honor as well as intelligence & capability; it’s taking the high road to go into I.T. or business, or teaching. Going into politics is akin to wanting to go into prostitution or the Mafia: only those already in the Family Business are comfortable with the idea. This is the sort of thing that the Obamas can at least dilute if not change, if enough Outsiders get in to change the prevailing ‘business as usual’ attitude of the rest of the overprivileged rulers of the US. THAT is why everyone is so excited about him, & they keep hoping, and they should. Those like Moonie have no business making derogatory comments. She can make comments if & when she’s part of the battle to change. Not until. As the current saying is, “if you didn’t vote, you aren’t allowed to bitch.” Moonraven: you want to hurl insults & maledictions? Then come back & help clean up congress & the WH. Otherwise keep shut while those of us still here who haven’t given up or sold out try.

  • moonraven

    For some time now, US voters have been getting the presidents they deserve.

    I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

  • Bliffle

    Race: Obama has a big advantage here as The Great White Hope who will slay US racism without being a partisan African-American over-dwelling on race, like Sharpton, Jackson, etc., or almost any black politician one can think of. He’s even got a good approximation of James Earl Jones great baritone, but can he punch out aphorisms like Jack Johnson?

    Experience: a large number of US voters cherish the dream of a Washington Outsider who, innocent of the corrupting influence of the Beltway, can come in and clean house using the simple truths that we all know well because Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart told us so. Witness GWB.

  • I actually had a dream last night that Obama had hired me as his campaign manager and I spent all my time trying to pick the right color sweaters for him to wear to compliment his skin tone.