The “Introduction” to the book “Branding Obmessiah”

November 3, 2011

B arack Obama learned about church while working in Chicago politics.

I learned about politics while working in a Chicago church.

The President and I named our dogs Bo Diddley. I named mine first.

Obama and I were born less than two years apart.

That’s about where the similarities end.

He was born—by his account—in Paradise. I was born in the Windy City.

O bama walked easily through the halls of academia and moved smoothly into the wide world of politics. Along the way he made more friends than most men know what to do with. He knew what to do with them, and it took him all the way to the White House.

My academic road was a bit more winding than his. By grace and with a good man’s guidance, I eventually finished my doctoral degree. I even made a few friends along the way. One of them believed in me and in the book I was writing about Obama’s inimitable campaign to the White House.

T his book had its genesis in Chicago while I was teaching at a university north of Obama’s downtown campaign headquarters. I was helping college students make sense of the way American culture, politics, and advertising were connected in the midst of one of the greatest case studies in our political history. As we watched Obama’s big blue “O” enlarge into an unprecedented national phenomenon, this unique vantage point proved invaluable for study ing the candidate’s extraordinary political operation.

Obama ran one of the best-organized campaigns in presidential history. But the newcomer to national politics did more than criticize his opponents and make big promises to the nation. Obama seemed to emerge from some higher place far from his hometown as he spoke of a better way—not the Chicago way. The seemingly magical candidate delivered a powerful and eloquent message of “hope and change” to America, and his words electrified millions of followers.

I wanted to know what really galvanized and unified Obama’s supporters, many of whom were previously uninterested in politics. Why did countless moderate Republicans veer left to stand in solidarity with the Democratic candidate? Why was Obama so much more appealing to so many more people—including most of my students?

M any reasons have been posited for Obama’s 2008 victory. Political analysts recognized that a lot more was going on than just one man speaking well off a teleprompter and being driven to an election night victory by a well-oiled campaign machine. Was it the one-two punch of message and
organization? What about his remarkable fund-raising? Or the way the mainstream media set the election’s agenda? Or the appeal of “the biggest celebrity in the world”?

Each president, some say, begets the next president. If there were no George W. Bush, there wouldn’t be President Obama. Pundits and prognosticators pointed out that the nation was weary of war, and that the economy tanked at just the right moment. The American people were looking for
hope and change.

S ome argued that Hillary Clinton ran a campaign that was too sure of itself too early on with too many tactical errors and too much hubris. She was old Washington. Americans had seen her before and wanted more change than she could muster.

John McCain, some claimed, started late and ran out of money early. Or they said that his message-of-the-week never resonated with the American people. Or that he was too complimentary to his opponent. Or that he didn’t photograph well. Or that he would just be more of Bush. The American people were looking for someone new to believe in.

All of these claims are reasonable and somewhat true, but they miss the underlying reason that Obama claimed victory. They don’t adequately explain the bewildering story of Obama’s stunningly fast, remarkably power ful ascent to the throne.

T he key to Obama’s rise was Obama—the brand, not the man. He was brand-new—a fresh start and an untainted past. His black-and-white story was America’s hope. His face showed the world America could change. He promised that we could solve problems together if we would only believe.
Clinton and McCain were Old Testament. “This is New Testament,” one punchy pundit declared after he felt the thrill of Obama going up his leg. Obama brought American politics into a new era—the era of presidential candidate as political messiah.

And so the branding of Obamessiah, a new kind of marvelously multicultural and innocently unblemished American idol, was born. As I watched the Obamessiah phenomenon unfolding, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry. Laughter was impractical; my sense of humor needed to be reserved for the annual Chicago property tax hike. Crying wasn’t an option either; my tears are saved for reruns of Old Yeller and Field of Dreams. And so instead I wrote this book to try to cope with and to under stand the same discomfort and discontent many Americans were feeling. It was a tangible way for me to deal with my own concerns about the future of political discourse in this country that I love.

S ome who read this book might become angry with Obama. “I believed the hype! How could I have been so foolish?” Others may feel vindicated. “I knew that there was something wrong. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.” Some true believers in “The One” will probably get angry with me. But my first intent here is not to blame the duped, praise the wary, or anger the righteous. I’m just trying to help us all sort through the process so that we can better understand the apparently magical candidate of 2008. When Toto pulled back the curtain on the great and powerful Wizard of Oz, everything suddenly made sense to Dorothy and her crew. That little dog and this dogged
book share the same objective.

Ultimately, I hope that all readers will feel more liberated in their thinking. When we as individual citizens understand our past, we can use that knowledge to benefit our future together as a nation. Herein lies freedom—the liberty to rightly change—and freedom is what being an American is all about.

Mark Edward Taylor © 2011 2012

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