Saturday, December 15, 2007

Oprahbama!

Pop culture and politics hooked up again yesterday. It was just one of them things, a short-term fling much like others in the past. But when Oprah Winfrey appeared at campaign events for Barack Obama in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, it was more than a media marriage of convenience. In her first pitch for a candidate, Oprah put her vast marketing and publicity machine at the disposal of a presidential aspirant -- effectively making herself, however briefly, an arm of the campaign, the first credible bid by an African American for the White House.

The Oprahbama show kicked off Dec. 8 in Iowa, where 18,000 people attended an electric rally at the U.S. Cellular Center in Des Moines. "For the very first time in my life, I feel compelled to stand up and speak out for the man who I believe has a new vision for America," said Oprah, who announced her support for the Obama campaign in May -- support backed up with a $3 million fundraising effort in September.



The next day Oprahbama hit South Carolina, with a tumultuous rally at William Bryce Football Stadium in Columbia. "For the first time, I'm stepping out of my pew because I've been inspired," Winfrey said. "I've been inspired to believe that a new vision is possible for America. Dr King dreamed the dream. But we don't have to just dream the dream anymore. We get to vote that dream into reality," she told the crowd of -- believe it -- about 30,000 people at the site, a second location for the rally after demand for tickets outstripped available space at the first venue choice.

Later on Sunday, about 8,000 people filled about half of the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, N.H., for a taste of the rock & roll-style whistlestop. "Ain't you tired of the old way of politics?" Winfrey asked. "Yes!" the crowd roared back.



Whether this rapid-fire exercise in campaign appearances was successful depends, of course, on perspective. It beat the hell out of the star power summoned by a campaign stop by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who appeared with her mother and her daughter, Chelsea -- stars of lesser magnitude.

And Oprah is a goddess of daytime TV, and most popular among white women older than 55; they comprise 40 percent of her audience, according to Nielsen Media Research. Of her 7.6 million daily viewers, 78 percent are white and 18 percent are black, Nielsen found. It's perfectly conceivable that some of Oprah's downhome, accessible luster may well rub off on a candidate who, despite his current broadening appeal, still has a wonkish aspect many Americans can't emotionally get their hearts around.

But there's also a question of what's really gained. Mark Halperin of Time magazine makes the not insubstantial point that the embarassment of riches Oprah bestows on Obama amounts to so much coals-to-Newcastle. "Winfrey's endorsement ... helps bring the following four things to Obama: campaign cash, celebrity, excitement and big crowds.

"The four things that Obama has on his own in great abundance — without Winfrey's help — are campaign cash, celebrity, excitement and big crowds."



Others in the punditocracy have again brought out the E word -- electable -- which long been thrown at the Obama campaign, basically another way of suggesting that Obama is too young, too fresh-faced for the presidency, a man with not enough fat under his chin or enough experience in Washington to be a credible commander-in-chief. This collective wisdom assails Obama, claiming that "the presidency is no place for on-the-job training." Such arguments conveniently disregard the fact that, unless you've done it before, there is no job like the presidency but the presidency -- that in every meaningful respect, on-the-job training for the most powerful job in the world is less an option than a necessity.

With scant weeks left before the first caucuses, and the downtime all the campaigners, Democrat and Republican, have quietly agreed to during the Christmas holidays, it's anyone's guess how Oprahbama will translate to actual votes.

There's a lot of chinpulling left to be done, and endorsements by the various newspapers could make a difference. On Saturday the Des Moines Register editorial board endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton for the caucus.

"Who is best prepared to confront the enormous challenges the nation faces — from ending the Iraq war to shoring up America’s middle class to confronting global climate change?" The Register asked.

"The job requires a president who not only understands the changes needed to move the country forward but also possesses the discipline and skill to navigate the reality of the resistant Washington power structure to get things done," the Register said. "That candidate is New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton."

Stardust is a fickle thing -- it lands briefly on someone's shoulder before it drifts away in the cultural wind, only to turn up somewhere else on someone else. Obama has been gaining ground steadily on his own; it's open to debate whether the glitter under the wheels of the Obama campaign bus gives him more traction, or takes it away.

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