By Nichola D. Gutgold
After Barack Obama made his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, his wife Michelle, known for tempering her husband’s ego, quipped that “one speech” would not transform his political fortunes. This is one time when the erudite Mrs. Obama may have been wrong. This one convention speech by a state political candidate in a You-Tube-24-hour-7-day-a-week news cycle took on a life of its own as the media world reinvented itself in the span of the 2004 convention and the 2008 presidential election. The surly accusation by Hillary Clinton that the neophyte politician Barack Obama was offering “only words” was in part, true. Barack Obama ran more on his rhetoric than record. And when combined with the deft use of media, Barack Obama’s message took on a life of its own and jettisoned the young Illinois senator to the White House.
That the United States of America is a media-dominated society is not new information. How the presidential campaign of Barack Obama seized upon the potential of the newer, multi-media opportunities to promote its candidate, network its volunteers and unify its message, and how the media—and media superstars—assisted in Barack Obama’s effort to capture the White House, is captivating.
In 2004 Barack Obama burst on to the national stage with a speech at the Democratic National Convention. His message of hope was already being shaped. He called for the audience to imagine a country where dreams can come true. He said, “It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.” As he angled for the White House, his message of hope continued to be the underpinning of his overall campaign theme.
Much of Barack Obama’s political success can be traced to a database listing contact information for millions of people, a tool that has proved invaluable in raising record sums of money and organizing a national volunteer network. His sizeable grassroots network is reached through the campaign's social networking portal, MyBo. His web presence on You Tube, Facebook and MySpace has ignited young voters and complimented the more traditional ground effort of Democratic volunteers.
Saying she felt compelled to support "the man I believe has a new vision for America," in December, 2007, media mogul Oprah Winfrey spoke passionately about Democratic Barack Obama. She said: "I've never taken this kind of risk before nor felt compelled to stand up and speak out before because there wasn't anyone to stand up and speak up for. We need a president who can bring us all together. I know Barack Obama is the one.” In addition to Oprah, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and MSNBC were devoting more time to the Barack Obama candidacy than any other.
Barack Obama appeared on late night television—making four appearances in all on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart—sitting down with the host of the Rachel Maddow Show as well as participating in interviews with several news programs, galvanizing his unprecedented broadcast ad buy and ‘closing the argument’ in the last weeks of the campaign. His Hollywood-style 30 minute infomercial aired on seven networks and was viewed by 33.5 million. The Barack Obama campaign for presidency a new rhetorical model for future campaigns to emulate.
Nichola D. Gutgold is Asssociate Professor Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State University, Lehigh Valley Campus. She is author of Paving the Way for Madam President, Seen and Heard: The Women of Television News, and is at work on a book about the presidential bid of Hillary Clinton.