De-"(br)othering" Obama in Denver

The New York Times has the key piece Monday about how the Obama camp will use the Democratic National Convention to recast its nominee in eyes of wary voters.

Published August 18, 2008 2:06PM (EDT)

Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times have a story Monday previewing some of the measures the Obama campaign will be taking in Denver next week to humanize, reintroduce and in general "de-other" Barack Obama to those wary Americans who still have in their in box that e-mail they saved from cousin Barry detailing all the "evidence" of how Obama is actually some Muslim-communist-alien from Pluto:

Democrats face a number of imperatives at their convention, none trickier than making more voters comfortable with the prospect of putting a candidate with a most unusual background -- the son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother, who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia -- and his family in the White House. No one, his advisers believe, makes the case better for Senator Barack Obama of Illinois than his wife, who will expand her profile by delivering one of the marquee speeches carried by television networks ...

At the convention beginning next Monday in Denver, there will be appearances by lesser known "Americans from all walks of life, from across the country" speaking about their support for Mr. Obama. Combined with a film featuring the candidate in all-American scenes by Davis Guggenheim -- the director of "An Inconvenient Truth" whose father produced a similar biographical film for Robert F. Kennedy -- aides to Mr. Obama are using the convention to tackle what members of both parties see as his greatest vulnerability with undecided voters: his "otherness."

A big part of this process, the Times reports, will be deploying Michelle Obama on the first night to reinforce the notion that Obama's family story is a typical, traditional American family story. It isn't, of course, but in many of the ways that it differs it is actually better or at least more stirring than the typical, traditional American family story.

So let's be honest here: By "otherness" the Times is really talking about "brotherness." Why is it so crude as to devolve into race? Well, for starters, notice there is no felt need (at the RNC, in the media) to reposition John McCain's family story as typically and traditionally American. Though many Americans have served in the military, gone to college and been divorced (or all three), few Americans are products of two generations of Navy admirals, attended a service academy, and left their crippled spouse to marry into the wealth of a beer distributor's daughter's family. Second, as anyone who has read David Maraniss' books about him knows, Bill Clinton's family story is far more mangled and muddied than Obama's. Yet I don't recall a movement in 1992 to "de-other" Clinton.

Though it is unfair, I suppose these are the realities of a half-black candidate with the middle name Hussein. The good news here (yet again) is that the Obama team recognizes the challenge facing it, and is confronting it head-on.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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