Wolffe: Inside the Obama Show

Next week, Barack Obama will engineer the last big set piece of the extraordinary 2008 presidential campaign--a 30-minute infomercial scheduled to air on the major broadcast networks and three cable news networks. According to my NEWSWEEK colleague Richard Wolffe, "one senior source close to the campaign puts the price tag in the $6 million range—which would make it the most expensive single political ad ever." Here, Wolffe reports on what we should expect to see (other than a stage decoupaged in dollar bills): 


The Obama camp has not yet tipped its hand about how its production will be staged. But judging from the credentials of producer Mark Putnam, it will be a... polished affair.

Putnam has produced more than 1,000 TV ads for Democratic candidates across the country, including some of the most striking spots broadcast over the last two cycles. His work for Gov. Bill Richardson's re-election campaign in New Mexico in 2006 and 2007 was widely praised and politically effective, not least for their use of humor. One spot showed Richardson in a Western movie, wearing a sheriff's badge and often riding on horseback. The ad touted his record of shuttering crystal-meth labs as the governor strode into a saloon to order a glass of milk. It ended with a line about movie production in New Mexico, with the governor riding off into the sunset. "Next time," Richardson said, "let's make a space movie."

Putnam also handled Richardson's ads in this year's Democratic presidential primaries. They were among the most distinctive and talked about of the year... Two of the ads featured mock job interviews with a lazy, sandwich-eating interrogator who rattled off Richardson's impressive foreign-policy resume, only to ask at the end: "So what makes you think you can be president?" Richardson looks wryly at the camera and says nothing.

More recently, Putnam produced Michelle Obama's bio video at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. The video was narrated by Michelle's mother, Marian Robinson, and sought to portray Michelle's family and community work in often intimate ways—ending with an emotional emphasis on Michelle's late father...

"He's a very, very good writer and producer," says Peter Fenn, the Democratic strategist who worked with him through the late 1980s and early 1990s. "He's very creative and a real perfectionist when it comes to his ads. He takes real pride in them. There are a lot of folks who do cookie-cutter things and churn them out. Not Mark." (Senior Obama campaign staff declined to comment on the prime-time ad or Putnam's work, and they did not make Putnam available to discuss it.)

Friends credit Putnam for his creativity. "He's very strong on the concept side, [as he demonstrated in] the Richardson ads," said one longtime friend, who requested anonymity speaking on the subject. "And secondly, he understands this is an emotional medium. He is excellent at producing affective material."

The friend cautions that next week's Obama spot won't be an ideal showcase for Putnam's creative talents. There will be a lot of hands in the project—including campaign manager David Plouffe, chief strategist David Axelrod and senior advisers Robert Gibbs and Anita Dunn. The team has been considering a classic town-hall format and weighing a mix of video and new original material, as well.