How the 2008 Obama Campaign Strategy is Shaping the 2016 Race

In 2008, then Senator Barack Obama shocked the world by defeating Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic nomination for president and going on to win the general election and the presidency itself. This opened a new door in politics that continues to allow self-proclaimed outsider candidates to have a chance at holding our nation’s highest office. What made Obama’s campaign so effective is that he successfully managed to link both Hillary Clinton and John McCain as parts of the stagnant, ineffective Washington situation, embodied by the all-encompassing word, the “establishment.”

The hope poster / Google Images

The hope poster / Google Images

For this strategy to be effective, Obama had to link both Clinton and McCain to the failures of the Bush administration. Even though neither candidate was part of the Bush White House, and even though neither of them supported the Bush administration for the most part, Clinton and McCain nevertheless would be linked in the eyes of many voters because they represented an older era of politics surrounded with the aura of scandal and controversy of the previous two administrations.

Obama’s 2008 campaign ushered in a new era of platitudes and non-specific excitement. His populist, yet vague slogans such as, “Hope,” “Change,” and “Yes we can” allow voters to project the hopes and changes they personally want onto the candidate. In contrast, the slogans used by Clinton and McCain, respectively: “Ready to Lead,” and, “Country first,” were uninspiring and didn’t leave room for projection. The slogans used by the candidates are in many ways representative of the candidates’ whole campaign. Clinton ran a presumptuous and reputation-based campaign, assuming that a little no-name senator couldn’t do any real damage against her inevitable nomination. McCain tried to rely on his established image as a Republican maverick to argue that he could work with members of both parties in Congress, pointing to many instances when he had done so during his long career as a senator. He argued that his record proved that he, not Obama, would be better able to provide effective bipartisan leadership. However, his age and his long service in Washington may have led many voters to doubt that he could inspire any real change in Washington whereas Obama had no established record in Washington as a first-term Senator and his past actions couldn’t be held against him.

Now, in 2016, the feeling of malice towards politicians of past and long-standing prominence has amplified even more and once sure-fire candidates such as Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Hillary Clinton, who all have the right connections and public images, are struggling to make a connection with voters. Why is this, one might ask? Because startup candidates are taking a page out of Obama’s book and using his platitude-filled, generalized statement campaign strategies. Donald Trump promises us that he’ll “Make America Great Again,” Senator Bernie Sanders says he’ll create “A Future to Believe In.” So far, voters have eaten it up with a spoon. That climate has shifted so harshly and dramatically that some candidates have been unable to adapt. People are so dissatisfied with the current situation in Washington that many of them would rather have someone with no governmental experience whatsoever than a member of the current or past class of politicians. That is what has given us Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the choice candidates of conservatives and liberals who are fed up with our current government. The similarities between Trump’s and Sanders’ campaigns and the 2008 Obama campaign are remarkable. As well as the aforementioned slogan similarities, both Trump and Sanders offer a far more radical dialogue than traditional candidates. While Bush and Clinton are busy painting themselves as centrist candidates Sanders and Trump are out appealing to fringe voters at the very edges of the political spectrum. Where Trump has the authoritarian/fascist appeal, Sanders has the egalitarianism/socialist appeal. Just like Obama, who in 2008 appealed to voters left of the self-established centrist Clinton, Trump and Sanders are attempting to oust well-established centrists from, in Trump’s case, the right, and, in Sanders’ case, the left.

The strategy of the campaign is brilliant, that’s undeniable. If someone in an official position whose opinion would normally be respected speaks against you, you can simply label them as the voice of the fabled “establishment,” and then their opinion is discounted in the eyes of supporters and potential converts. This leads to blind and unwavering faithfulness by the supporters of the respective candidates. All one has to do to find proof of this is to go on any political website or blog or any news outlet that covers the 2016 election. If any analyst, host, writer, or commenter speaks ill of any policy, idea, word, or syllable that either Trump or Sanders utter there will be fifty or so of their respective supporters reprimanding said individual and labeling him or her as simply a “voice of the establishment.” They have even gone as far as to label President Obama, the man who’s campaign opened the door for their own, as an establishment crony for speaking out against extremism in US politics.

The fact of the matter is Obama’s strategy, although brilliant for becoming elected, doesn’t pan out once one is actually elected. Seeing as Obama spent his entire campaign running to the left of the centrist Clinton, and then smearing the embodiment of compromising and bipartisanship McCain, once he became President it’s little surprise that Congress refused to work with him at a historic rate. The infamous “do-nothing Congress” of the Truman era passed around 900 bills during its two years in office. The Congresses since 2010 passed 622, 633, and 410 bills. President Obama has been unable to work with Congress whatsoever. For better or for worse, his two predecessors, President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush, were able to make deals with Congress passing over 1,000 bills in all but the final Congress of their respective presidencies. But Obama hasn’t found a way to make mutual agreements with Congress and this has created the stagnant and nonproductive Washington that Americans despise.

In turn, this stagnant nature and hatred for it have now opened the doors for the far more radical Trump and Sanders. Ironically, it is the very fact that Obama had an outsider status that has created static in Washington and that static has made citizens want to vote for whom? Another outsider. Seeing as they are both far more radical than Obama their agendas would be even more impossible to accomplish, creating more and more static in Washington and dissatisfying the people of America even more. So while it is easy to get caught up in the idea of a populist candidate, I’d urge voters to think about the consequences about electing an extremist. Yes, it is time for change, but a radical candidate will not be a catalyst for the change we need, and the last eight years have proved that.