When Ross Perot pioneered the half-hour presidential-campaign infomercial back in 1992, he used pie charts to make his points. Last night, Barack Obama relied on apple pie instead.
Carrying a cool $5 million price tag and airing on NBC, CBS, FOX and the major cable-news networks, Wednesday's much anticipated "Obamamercial" wasn't particularly surprising. As a preview of an Obama presidency it was undeniably precise: glossy, humorless, focused and, at times, moving (often against one's will). Much of the broadcast consisted of testimonials by besotted pols and shots of Obama seducing massive crowds seamlessly studded with imagery swiped straight from the Chevy truck playbook: shimmering fields of wheat; smiling, multiracial faces; children holding American flags; veterans on parade. I expected Bob Seger to start singing, "like Barack, oh-oh, like Barack" at any moment.
But despite the astronomical pabulum factor, the Obamamercial was (above all else) effective. Why? Because it had a very simple objective—making undecided voters comfortable with the experience of a President Obama—and was very savvy about accomplishing it.
Content-wise, the heart of the show was a quartet of mini-documentaries about the "folks" Obama has met in his travels, each of which was narrated by the candidate himself and followed by a clip of him rattling off his pertinent proposals (laid out, as he telegraphed, in "specific detail"). The important thing here wasn't Juanita Stuart's rheumatoid arthritis or Obama's health-care plan—I doubt many viewers will remember either tomorrow. It was Obama's underlying argument about what sort of president he would be—that is, the sort who absorbs the "specific details" of your problems and produces specific, detailed policies to deal with them. He listens, he deliberates and then he acts. The implied contrast, of course, was with George W. Bush and John McCain—men known for shooting first and asking questions later. Even though Obama never mentioned the latter by name.
Ultimately, the entire Obamamercial was designed to provide voters with a preview of what it will feel like to welcome Obama in their living rooms for the next four years. The presidency is the most personal of America's elective offices, and it is through the TV set, in the privacy of our own homes, that the relationship between the president and the people develops. More than the convention, or the debates, or any 30-second spot, the Obamamercial simulated how the country would interact with Obama if he were elected president—with him on one side of the screen, perched at a large, flag-framed desk, and us on the other, slumped on the couch. It was almost as if the election was already over, Obama was speaking from the Oval Office--and the country hadn't become a Communist caliphate. And that was the point.
Will the gambit work? Well, the latest polls show the Illinois senator cresting 50 percent; about 7 percent of the population is still undecided. If last night's broadcast convinced even a handful of undecideds (and perhaps a few of Obama's softest supporters) that he's not the socialistic, terrorist-sympathizing cipher of Republican caricature but rather someone they already feel comfortable seeing in a presidential setting, then it was a resounding success. At the very least, the show gobbled up two news cycles. With only five to go, McCain can't afford to lose many more.