Traditional Media Spectacularly Misjudges Obama's Political Strength

Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, American traditional media has tried to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of this president, using measuring sticks they had been honing since, oh, the mid 20th century. Using those lenses that haven't been cleaned since the 70s, they have reached the almighty conclusion that Barack Obama has become a politically ineffectual - even toxic - black mark (pun intended) that even Democrats don't want to get close to this election.

And to be honest, there are a few foot-shooting Democrats making that case easier to make than it has to be. But the truth remains that the traditional media is badly misjudging this president's political acumen and how he is asserting it, and this morning's piece in the New York Times by Jonathan Martin is as good an example of the media's sore need to catch up to today's politics as any. For today's discussion, I am going to ignore Martin's gratuitous personal attack on the President as well as the fact that the President has recently been to many red states.

Martin's piece, as many among his colleagues and talking heads on TV, sees presidential visibility as the key - and perhaps the only - indicator of his pull among Democrats on the ballot in November. 

When Mr. Obama entered the campaign fray last week, he did so by returning to the unconditional embrace of his own hometown, in a blue state where the incumbent Democratic senator faces scant opposition and the Democratic governor is running in part on his support for the Affordable Care Act. On Tuesday, the president attended private fund-raisers in Manhattan, to be followed by similar events in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Arkansas it is not.

Discounting for a second Martin's short and tragic political memory that conveniently forgets that Illinois also has a Republican US Senator, the above paragraph is symptomatic of modern politics having moved so far past the mainstream press that it can't even see it.

The misjudgment of visibility as influence comes from something else that we have been hearing the media babble about since 2008: that what catapulted an unknown State Senator to the presidency in four short years was his exceptional oratory skills and stage presence.

While President Obama's oratory and stage presence are indeed legendary, the media fails to realize that speeches and rallies aren't enough to beat the juggernaut of the Clinton machine AND win two electoral landslides in a row. Not even close. What took to soar past the two largest political machines this country has ever known is the thing about Barack Obama that (aside from his skin color) Republican fear - and despise - the most: his and his campaign's organizing prowess.

Barack Obama is living proof that the right kind of organization and targeting is more important than any TV ads, media analysis or stagecraft. Campaigns have done voter targeting since the beginning of time, but the Obama campaign took it to a whole new level. A stunning - and stunningly accurate - level of microtargeting down to individual voters and the right messages caught the president's adversaries off guard the first time, and the second time, although they knew of this tool, they stood helplessly unable to either tame or duplicate the effort.

This is where President Obama and his political operatives have taken politics - and particularly the Democratic party - by storm. Amusingly enough, Martin even acknowledges that in his piece, if in a berating form.

“We have built on the targeting and turnout operations that the Obama campaign developed and are involving the president to engage voters in the most efficient ways,” said Matt Canter, a senior official at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Mr. Obama is taping recordings that will be used for get-out-the-vote phone calls, radio ads and videos. But that such targeted efforts — “efficient ways,” as Mr. Canter put it — are being used, rather than deploying the president to swing states, speaks to his weak standing.

Funny, because Martin and the established media has no conception of the fact that the president's "standing", as they put it, is exactly why he's being used in more targeted ways. He can certainly go and arouse the college crowds, including in the "red" states, but it would take away time and efforts for what is going to matter even more: targeted messaging for microtargeted voters - who need to come out and vote if Democrats are to win in 2014.

If John F. Kennedy was the first president of the modern mass media era, Barack Obama is the pioneering president of the 21st century micromedia and microtargeting era. This is the thing that caught President Obama's political opponents flat footed in two consecutive presidential elections, and even as his opponent knew this, they stood helplessly, unable to duplicate his success.

People in America are bombarded with information and advertisements. The effectiveness of the mass media is consistently on the decline, while the stock of targeted messaging to targeted voters/consumers is rising. A quick look at the advertising world will tell you this. This isn't an accident. No matter how effective mass campaign is, it cannot target every individual it needs to. The megaphone is become less and less effective without accompanying microtargeting.

This is where President Obama and Organizing for America are stepping up. President Obama is delivering an effective, simple, unifying message: keep the economy growing, make health care even better, raise the minimum wage. OFA volunteers on the ground everywhere are tailoring that message, and empowered by the data gathered on voters by OFA, taking the right message to the right voters - down to not just the household but the particular voter. And Democrats from New Jersey to Texas know it.

Will that guarantee a Democratic victory next month? No. Democrats are legendary for their ability to kick a good thing. This year, Democrats will have to decide to get off their behinds and vote, and Democratic candidates have to take advantage of the political infrastructure OFA is providing. But I can say this much: Democrats who embrace the president's message and policies of growing the country together will fare better next month than will Democrats whose campaign strategy involve hiding their party affiliations.

Where the traditional media is truly going with this is an attempt to set up a "heads I win, tails you lose" post-election punditry paradigm. If Democrats do well, they will say it happened because Democrats "distanced" themselves from the President. If Democrats do poorly, they'll say Obama sank the party. Either way, Obama gets to be the pariah.

What they don't realize is that President Obama's legacy - policy and political - far transcends 2014. The diverse coalition that devastated the Republican party twice is the template for any future Democratic success. The president's ground operations have all but closed the door of the White House to present day Republicans - and if the media were being fair, that would in and of itself have been recognized as monumental.

History will see Barack Obama as the most consequential president of the last 50 years, and nothing the media "analysts" can say will change that.



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