The Roman poet Horace's Ars Poetica suggests that literary endeavors should begin in medias res. So we launch our literary-critical examination of online political matter in the middle of the presidential race by looking at the campaign blog of its most eloquent and writerly candidate, Barack Obama.
It's a rule now, as certain as any FEC statute, that every campaign must have a blog. Hillary Clinton's is aggressive on the subject of Republican policies; John Edwards's is overcrowded with design ideas, some sensible and others nonsensical.
Obama's appears at the rather tortuous URL http://my.barackobama.com/page/community/group/ObamaHQ/. A close reading of the blog can start right there: The "my" suggests that every Obama supporter counts as a lobbyist; the "community" and "group" are comforting signifiers of collective consciousness; and the "page" ... well, every campaign can use some pages around the office.
The Obama blog is pretty active, with two or three posts on a typical day, mostly credited to staffers Sam Graham-Felsen and Alexandra MacCallum. (Obama's own direct involvement is limited to occasional guest appearances, like a brief note on Mother's Day.) It's cleanly designed, with a template that owes a lot to Daily Kos, especially the quotations broken out into boxes. As the public literary face of Obama's candidacy, though, it's a letdown.
Obama has been described as being "as much an American writer who has found his way to politics as he is a politician who knows how to write." His breakthrough speech was his 2004 DNC keynote, in which he varied the boilerplate standing-on-the-crossroads-of-history formula of big political speeches with wry juxtapositions of high and low diction: "We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like Federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States." Even in his high-serious announcement of his candidacy, he delivered some linguistic jolts; in the middle of a long anaphoristic run of sentences beginning "let's" or "let us," he interjected the very modern "Let's do this."
There's not much of that playfulness in the Obama blog, which reads as if its contributors were asked to write only in the blandest political tropes. "He not only has the vision and tenacity to pursue sweeping change, but the ability to reach across partisan lines and realize much-needed reforms," one post burbles. A copy editor might well move the "has" before the "not only"; a lover of the English language would certainly re-think the clichés of change that sweeps, of reforms that are much-needed, of partisan lines being reached across. "When you start writing you are able to discern where you're being false, where you're using clichés, where you're manufacturing emotion that's not really there, or where you're shying away from something that isn't necessarily flattering," Obama the author of Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope has said. "There's definitely excitement in the air right now. People are ready for a leader interested in representing all of the American people with and [sic] ability to bring people together to get things done, and Barack is the candidate who can make that a reality," My.BarackObama chirps.
The blog follows Obama's rhetorical patterns exactly as far as assembling lots of sentences from two parallel clauses, as in this entry: "You can hear it when you talk to supporters and see it when you go to campaign events. We need someone who is comfortable saying what he thinks, and who can confidently engage and persuade a majority... He's doing it in the U.S. Senate, and he can do it again as President." It also preserves his habit of invoking Abraham Lincoln whenever he can. An Obama-signed request for donations reproduced on the blog features the most diluted allusion to the Gettysburg Address in recent memory: "Not only is your support the key to our success, it's essential to reclaiming a government that is of the people, by the people, and for the people."
Part of the problem is that the tone of the Obama blog falls into the gap between the two common categories of weblogs. The first kind, and the kind that's probably most convenient for a politician, exists to disseminate information--to be a sort of moderated news-feed. (The now-defunct Barack Oblogga was something along those lines, although it was more about tracking his candidacy--including the Rezko housing scandal--than cheering on his supporters.)
The other kind of weblog aims for an engaged constituency, which is what politicians need to look as if they have. Obama's blog makes occasional attempts to discuss policy, and it gets tons of comments--over 500, on some posts--virtually none of which are ever on topic. Most posts' comment sections instantly devolve into back-and-forths with the site's resident troll, and the remaining comments are invariably people plugging themselves, cut-and-pasting editorials and news reports, or making small talk about the campaign. A lot of Obama-blog entries end with some variation on "What do you think?"; a recent one concludes "What's your take on the week? Are you guys ready for genuine change? Discuss." But that's not actually an opening for a conversation--"discuss" aside, it's the language of a political rally. The only appropriate response is "WHOOOO!" It's also nowhere near Obama's own political language, or the way he represents himself. Obama's 2006 speech on politics and religion, for instance, was unabashedly brainy, peppered with words like "sectarianism," "inerrancy" and "codification." And he did something in that speech that's one of his greatest strengths as a speaker and most unpredictable attributes as a politician: He admitted his own failures. (The speech's money phrase is "I felt a pang of shame," which is high on the list of Things We'll Never Hear George W. Bush Say.)
The blog's tone, on the other hand, is less clear-eyed appreciation than sycophantism that puts the reader on a first-name basis with the candidate. (Go back to the earliest posts, in February, and he's almost always "Senator Obama." A little later, he's "Obama," and now he's invariably good old "Barack.") "Barack isn't one for half-measures," declares one entry. "He's in this to fundamentally change Washington." Another announces that "Illinois is overflowing with grassroots energy for Barack-- literally." (What kind of energy do the roots of grass have? Can it overflow?)
Still another post tells us that "Barack 'wowed' the College Democrats of America yesterday, bringing everyone in the room to his or her feet." This isn't even preaching to the choir--it's preaching to the clergy. Declaring how impressed you are by a candidate only works if you're not in his employ, and the blog-reading audience prides itself on its bullshit detector. The response a blog has to worry about isn't O'Reilly but "O RLY?".
Even so, the Obama blog has its own recurring themes, and they say a lot about his campaign, both by inclusion and by omission. The blog's writers are particularly fond of "reform"--ethics reform, government reform, criminal justice reform, campaign finance reform, welfare reform, farm policy reform, the aforementioned "much-needed reforms." Another catchphrase they use over and over is "real change" and its cognates.
At the same time, the Obama bloggers are very careful to let readers pick their own fights. They rarely take overt slams at the Bush administration, and fastidiously avoid slighting other Democratic candidates; the closest they've come is linking to Andrew Sullivan's comparison of Obama and Hillary Clinton. The blog's subtext--and by extension the campaign's subtext--is "up with Obama," not "us vs. them" or even "let's do this." The only question it really asks is "Barack: awesome, or totally awesome? Discuss."
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly linked to an unofficial Mitt Romney blog. We regret the error.
By Douglas Wolk