By Umut Newbury
June 15, 2009
Last week, we saw an image of an American president that has been foreign to us for a little while. In Cairo, tens of thousands of Muslims cheered for President Barack Obama, as he spoke of a different world with a different United States leading it. He quoted from the three major Western religious texts and brought Egyptians to their feet with applause. As President Obama works on his second 100 days in the White House, it is a good time to take a look back and reflect on his campaign that brought him there.
Danny Schechter’s new documentary Barack Obama: People’s President, is a refreshing take on Obama’s campaign to the presidency. Rather than cutting and pasting coverage of talking heads telling us how Obama became the president, Schechter tries an old technique known to print journalists of yesteryear: showing it. His film opens with the famous “Yes We Can” video created by will.i.am and continues with 90 minutes of very diverse footage of the grassroots campaign that got Obama elected.
Anyone who was an official volunteer for the Obama campaign, or an unofficial volunteer (disclosure here, this reviewer was one of them) who lobbied friends, relatives, neighbors to register to vote, donate money, vote and pass on the word will enjoy seeing this big picture view of the campaign. As for those who voted and volunteered for other candidates, they would be mistaken to dismiss this film as a victory dance. People’s President lays out the steps of the Obama campaign’s success for anyone willing to learn how it was done.
The theme of Schechter’s film is the people behind the people’s candidate. Schechter’s premise is simple enough: Obama’s success lies in his campaign’s innovative use of the Internet and other new technologies, which helped lure the youth vote and reach out to many other hard-to-get constituencies. The film has footage of self-described Obama Camps across the nation, as well as an array of creativity the campaign fostered on the Internet, from will.i.am to Obama Girl and to lesser-known clips such as the “Irish Obama” and “How Obama won the KKK.” Schechter also has some experts analyzing all of this, such as NBC’s Jonathan Alter and MoveOn.org’s David Fenton. Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker magazine recollects his meeting with Obama as the moment he realized that the candidate was exactly how he portrayed himself to the masses, “thoughtful, calm, disciplined, well-organized, human and strong.”
Any campaign, Schechter argues, needs money and people. The Obama campaign got both in unforeseen amounts. Fenton says Obama won because the online tactics “broke the grip of large donors on the Democratic Party.” People like Scott Cohen describe how they felt when they heard Obama’s speech in Springfield. “I wrote the largest check of my life, for $2,300, and talked others to do so.” Cohen later had the idea to create the “An Obama Minute” video, where he asked people to give as much as they can. The first time the video aired, it raised more than $200,000.
The other strength of the Obama campaign, People’s President shows, was the superiority of its operation. The Chicago headquarters had the slogan, “No Drama with Obama.” Unlike other campaigns, there was no internal fighting, no unauthorized leaks or embarrassments. They had a tight, smooth running organization, with a simple message, “Change.” As Jonathan Alter points out, while Hillary Clinton played with different messages, the Obama campaign stuck to its original message and added a simple slogan, “Yes We Can.” Read the rest of this entry »