Obama’s Infomercial Hits Home

By Ruth Conniff | Barack Obama’s 30-minute, prime-time infomercial played on the heartstrings of stressed-out Americans. It all worked together. The violin music, the soft focus stories, the greatest hits from some of his speeches: “We measure the strength of our economy not by the number of billionaires we have, or the profits of the Fortune 500, but by . . . whether the waitress who lives on tips can take a day off and look after a sick kid without losing her job.”

The moving biographies of families struggling to afford their mortgages, health care, and other basic costs took campaign hobby horse of using real people to illustrate political points to a new height.

Forget Joe the Plumber. How about the Stuarts, who worked hard until they retired, only to find they couldn’t afford Juanita’s arthritis medicine, so Larry had to go back to work? Seeing this elderly couple, her crippled hands, and his shyness over his sales job, made it clear that this was no put-on. Nor was Juliana Sanchez, a teacher who works and extra job and still has to buy a half-gallon of milk at a time to stretch her wages.

The well choreographed stories tugged at your emotions. Then it was back to the H&R Block segments of Obama sitting at a desk and outlining his policy proposals.

Television is an all-emotion medium, and Obama put his populist points across better than Oprah Winfrey herself. It was a tour de force.

Only in reviewing the transcript is it clear that some of the points aren’t fully fleshed out. Obama sounds commanding, and certainly has a lot of applause lines when he criticizes the insurance industry (describing how his own mother had to fight her insurers, as she was dying of cancer, on her death bed), but how exactly will he guarantee health insurance? It doesn’t really matter, for the purposes of good T.V. You are swept right back into the biographical segment by the rising violins.

Biden’s testimony about seeing Obama question Condoleeza Rice as a freshman Senator, and saying “Whoa, this guy is good,” was a little awkward. As was the rest of the brief segment on is brief tenure in Washington.

But apart from that, Obama hit it out of the park.

It was fascinating to see how the campaign took the temperature of Americans and came up with this particular pitch.

Following hard on a segment on national security and an endorsement from a retired Brigadier General John Adams, was a picture of Obama hugging a young man as his voice intoned “I promise you this, I’ll always tell you where I stand. . . ” The father imagery was overwhelming, especially coming on the heels of a segment about his own devotion to his daughters.

Finally, there was the live bit from Florida, the speech that clearly was happening now, since he referred to the last six days of the election, asking people to “knock on some doors.” Stand with me, he said, and “we’ll change this country and change the world.” Big grins and handshakes with Biden. Sweeping music, like something out of Little House on the Prairie, and we’re out.

The desire for empathy, the feelings of injustice, the emotional pull of good people who’ve been done wrong, all speak to a country that is feeling insecure. What Obama offers, more than anything, is a kind of steady, benign father figure who will guide us through rough times. The emphasis on family and values underscore this. In this way he has completely stolen the thunder of the conservative, family values party, whose candidate appears sulky and flustered by turns. It’s pretty clear who the “steady hand on the tiller” really is.

There are plenty of people who take umbrage at Obama’s Bill Cosby-like invocation of good parenting as a slap in the face of black people–the government can’t turn off the T.V. or read to your child–etc. And clearly, this is something that white people love to hear a black man say. Personally, I don’t have a problem with it, and don’t hear it as racially coded. But I don’t think I’m the target audience.

Take this little tidbit from Chris Matthews who came on to spin the infomercial for Keith Olbermann as soon as Obama went off the air: “What do you want black people to do?” Matthews asked, referring to Obama’s model family life: read to their children, support their families, etc. etc. Matthews to voters: Vote for Obama, he’s a credit to his race.

It shows how far the country still has to go.

But Obama has the pulse of the country. He is not, as he says, perfect. H