On the trail, Barack Obama barely mentions his Kenyan father or his father's family. In town halls, commiserating about everyday struggles—health care, education, jobs—he'll say, "I have an experience about that," and then launch into a tale drawn from his upbringing. He was reared by a "single mom" who sometimes relied on food stamps, he says, and by her parents: a grandpa who fought in World War II and a grandma who worked at a defense plant. Diligent and unassuming, they built a comfortable-enough life for him in Honolulu. "My story is your story," he says.
Obama got his dreams from his father. But now he has to get his votes from his mother. That will be the aim of much of the pageantry at the Democratic convention. In the saga of Ann Dunham and her parents, the campaign sees a mother lode of votes: a biographical "narrative" to show he understands the economic fears and cultural cues of white middle-class voters in swing states.
This narrative has multiple strands. One is about humble origins, a potent claim to office that traces back to the early 19th-century frontier. "It's an only-in-America story," says Anita Dunn, an Obama staffer, "in which a skinny kid with big ears and a funny name makes it to the top." Another more important thread is empathy, a qualification that traces back to the late-20th-century campaigns of Bill Clinton. "The point of biography is that he understands economic struggle," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist unaffiliated with the campaign. As participants in the Good War, Obama's grandparents give him a route into stories of national sacrifice and patriotism. And it goes without saying—by the Obama campaign, at least—that his mother's family is white, which will reassure some voters. Earlier this summer, the campaign launched its first national bio spot, which featured the Dunhams and, other than the candidate, had barely a glimpse of African-Americans.
Conventions are the Olympics of political messaging—a rare chance (along with the debates) to address a mass audience in an age of media fragmentation. So Obama won't use all of the time to talk about himself. Indeed, much of the talk is scripted to be an attack on John McCain. "The Republican brand is so weak," says Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist. "You pound him." Conservative Republicans, who have little regard for McCain, agree. "[Democrats] don't need to focus on Obama at all," says author-consultant Craig Shirley. "It's an 'economy, stupid' election, and that's all they say."
But bionarrative has become integral to, and unavoidable at, conventions. In 1988, the GOP event featured a stirring video about the wartime life of Vice President George H.W. Bush. In 1992, Hollywood TV director Harry Thomason turned his sitcom skills to the times of Bill Clinton, producing "A Man From Hope." (This year, Thomason is working for Hillary Clinton, who negotiated to show her own video tribute in Denver.) This week, speaking before what is expected to be some 70,000 supporters, Obama will note the historical resonance of the date: the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. But before Obama arrives on the podium, the audience will see an eight-minute video. Davis Guggenheim, who won an Academy Award for "An Inconvenient Truth," directed the film. "It's very much a look at Barack as a person," says Dunn. "We wanted people to have a sense that they know him better." If they do, they'll learn about a man shaped not only by distant dreams, but by what for many is an American, and familiar, childhood.