Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Unconventional Wisdom IV: Obama's Rally Risk

By Robin Masters

The news that Senator Barack Obama would be accepting the Democratic nomination for president not in Denver’s Pepsi Center, where the rest of the convention will be held, but instead at 76,000-seat Invesco Field, provoked relatively little comment in the political world. Obama is a talented, perhaps even gifted, public speaker, and he has had enormous success delivering inspiring stemwinders to huge, adoring crowds, including 200,000 in Berlin last month. Why not continue what his campaign can only see as a positive trend (while, the cynics point out, neatly sidestepping the possibility of booing or other such unpleasantness from disaffected Hillary supporters in the smaller auditorium)?

It could be a stroke of genius. But like many strokes of genius, it could also be very risky.

Too often lost in the hustle and bustle of the speechwriting process is the most important question every speechwriter must ask himself and his principal, more important than “how long should it be?”; more important than “who’s going to be there?”: even more important than “you want a draft by when?” The most important question is “what are we trying to accomplish with this speech?”

Sometimes the answer is obvious: “we need to ramp up grassroots enthusiasm in county x”, or “we need to help candidate y raise $100,000 by Friday.” Sometimes it is not. It is often far too easy to go with the flow, accept an invitation, make travel arrangements, and start writing a speech without ever really answering the fundamental question of why you’re doing it.

For Senator Obama’s team, it may have been very easy to decide to move his acceptance speech to a large outdoor stadium. He has depended on precisely these types of venues throughout his campaign, and it’s hard to deny that they’ve worked. His first national ads were built largely from footage taken at speaking events. His public persona—a successful persona thus far in the campaign—is based on his ability to inspire when speaking to mostly large audiences. So it seems natural, even a stroke of genius, to move his convention speech to such a venue. But in doing so, did he and his staff ask the fundamental question of what they want to accomplish, or did they simply act swiftly on what seems on the surface to be an undeniably clever idea?

A convention acceptance speech is traditionally something of a mash-up, a combination of many things to many people. It is supposed to rally the true believers, motivating them to continue their work for the candidate. But it also, usually for the first time, must present to the entire nation not just a candidate, but a credible Commander In Chief and Head of State—a President. In many ways, the convention speech is a candidate’s first presidential speech. It is his first speech to a national audience that goes far beyond ideological supporters.

Obama’s audience in Denver will be far larger than the 76,000 carefully selected fans cheering him in person. The eyes of the country—and the world—will be on him, many for the very first time … and they will not all belong to supporters.

Many of those people—most, according to the polls—want to give Obama a chance. They want to like him. They are disaffected with Republicans and the buzz surrounding Obama has reached them even if they have paid little or no attention to political news thus far this year. But they are not sure. He is young. He is inexperienced. They want to be convinced that he is, in fact, presidential. Simply appearing in the traditional convention hall environment—the environment from which we are used to seeing presidential campaigns launched—would have helped. Appearing in a rally atmosphere does not necessarily do so.

So is it a mistake? Not necessarily. It’s a risk, and like all risks it may pay off. Their calculated gamble may in fact be built on a simple calculus: inspirational, if not policy-heavy, speeches to large, cheering crowds have gotten us this far, so why fix it if it isn’t broken?

But it could also be a failure to recognize what he still has to accomplish: reach out beyond his already enthusiastic supporters and convince the country that he is not just an attractive candidate, but a President.

The question is, did the Obama team carefully consider what it is they want to accomplish with this speech when they made the decision to move it, and are they doing so today as the drafting process begins? If so, they have an excellent chance of success; their track record so far is stellar. But if not, if they are simply doing what they do because it is what they’ve always done before, then they may fall short. We don’t know yet what the result will be … but we will soon enough.

Masters is a former Bush Administration speechwriter


Anonymous said...

Smart, balanced, insightful. Keep this up and the GG blog may get a reputation. A good one.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how the perspective candidates would respond to this website: