The Facebook Candidate Meets the Real World

Barack Obama, the Facebook candidate, has been stumbling in trying to move his campaign into the real world. The problem is his lack of real positions.

I know this is a minority view. The press has recently been full of commentary about how Barack Obama needs to "re-introduce himself" because American voters don't really "know" him. And sure enough, last night there were Michelle and the kids, reintroducing themselves on the Orwellian scale that national American politics demands, their scrubbed and smiling faces looking up at the man of the family blown up to super human proportions on a giant screen, then multiplied on millions of screens around the country and even the world.

How is it that a man who has faced more intense media exposure any politician on planet earth must now be "introduced?" More than any other modern candidate, Obama has based his campaign on his own life narrative, one that he himself has very consciously crafted. This is the candidate who wrote not one but two autobiographies (after he decided to run, he revised his already carefully constructed personal narrative into a presidential version 2.0).

Obama is the Facebook candidate. The Facebook connection has usually been mentioned in a positive light. As members of the Facebook generation like to say, Obama "gets it" when it comes to the social-networking power of the Internet, and his campaign has taken Internet-based electioneering to new heights. But the computer monitor glow that illuminates his campaign can also cast the candidate in a less flattering light.

Summing up his speeches, historian Fred Siegel aptly noted that Obama has "a rhetoric rather than a philosophy." Indeed. He has a developed rhetoric, a finely crafted personal narrative, and a dashing image. Personal narrative + rhetoric + image is what you do on Facebook. You craft your own little narrative to introduce yourself. You style it with a rhetoric that hopefully distinguishes yourself from the hordes. And you add as finely honed an image as you can muster given your circumstances. Later, when the details of your off-line life get too complicated, you go back and redo your profile, "re-introduce" yourself.

The degree to which Obama relies on this package of narrative, rhetoric and image, regardless of the situation in which he finds himself, can be startling. "People of Berlin, people of the world, this is our moment. This is our time," he intoned to 200,000 Germans. Say what? It's his peak rhetorical flourish on the stump in the States, where people will actually vote in a crucial election in a few months. But "people of the world, this is our time," means precisely... nothing.

On Facebook relationships are often limited to what would be considered introductions in the real world: "hi, this is me, this is my image and narrative, will you be my friend?, hey thanks," and on to the next introduction. And when you revise your profile, everyone can go back and be "re-introduced" to the revised You.

This is essentially what Obama did after securing the nomination with his sharp swing to the right. He revised his profile and re-introduced himself. Now he is apparently going to re-re-introduce himself before 75,000 in Denver.

At the risk of utter heresy, I would like to suggest that at this point Obama has been sufficiently introduced. His problem is that, as he has gone from one introduction to another, he has kicked the legs out from under his original appeal. Often this problem is mistakenly referred to in the media as a "lack of specifics:" he needs to "flesh out the details" of policies American voters are supposedly in the dark about. This after how many primary debates? How many position papers and talking points on his various web sites?

The problem is not that Obama has not been specific. The problem is that the specifics keep changing as he revises his profile. The title line of his early profile as "A Different Kind of Politician." Central to this was his support of campaign financing reform to "get the money out of politics." But he ditched all that when it became clear he could likely raise more money than any candidate in history. He wanted to return the rule of law to the US and promised to filibuster legislation that legalized the unconstitutional electronic surveillance the Bush administration had begun under the cover of the nebulous "war on terror." But then he changed his mind and instead of filibustering against it, he voted for it. With McCain running around the country squawking "Drill here and drill now," he drew a line in the sand against offshore oil drilling, then announced he might change his mind. He has fudged on so many programmatic points that when, most recently, he backed away from his pledge to extend Social Security payroll taxes and raise the capital gains tax, it was hardly noticed.

There has bee no shortage of specifics. The problem is that so many of the specifics were very specifically jettisoned.

All this was spun as a savvy turn toward the center after wrapping up the nomination. Unhappy progressives who had been the core activists of his grassroots primary campaign were told to grow up and face the facts that this is how real elections are won in this country.

But, surprise! Obama's fall in the polls and McCain's rise date from exactly this moment. Now that he is no longer the Different Kind of Politician, who is he? He is coming into the convention with his resplendent image, well-tailored personal narrative, and soaring rhetoric, but no one knows what he really stands for beyond his own ambition.

More than any other candidate, Obama is running not on what he would do but who he is. The paradox is that he insists all the while that the success of his candidacy shows that who one is no longer matters. There you have, splashed across the video screens that are mirrors of yet other video screens, what academics call the self-reflexivity of the post-modern.

The one time Obama has risen above his Facebook campaign was when he was forced to address race relations in America in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright debacle. After trying to wiggle out of the tight spot he was being cornered into for weeks, he turned and addressed the issue head on and gave the speech of his life. As a result, he won the Democratic primary.

But addressing race relations in America comes more naturally to this incredibly charismatic but equally cautious candidate than committing himself to policies that he would be identified with. It is just not in his nature. But it is time.

No Senator, please don't re-re-introduce yourself. We know the whole story. Please, just tell us three things you are really going to do. That you are not going to budge an inch on. That you will stand or fall on. That will still be there when you are re-re-reintroduced, in version 3.0