“Branding Obamessiah” Author Interview
1. Mark, why did you write Branding Obamessiah?
The book started writing itself while I was living in Chicago and watching Barack Obama come from nowhere to challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. I wanted to know who Obama was, since he and I walked the same streets, and how in the world he could generate such vast voter support with almost no political record. Who was this guy—really?
2. How did you begin connecting the dots for a whole book on the topic?
Dots? It was more like a storm. I was following Chicago media like a hawk, reading everything, talking to everybody, and teaching a university course on communication while Obama’s now-legendary campaign was unfolding. I had the hometown advantage of knowing Windy City politics and not being known by a lot of people. In addition to teaching, I was trying to stay afloat financially by working in home health care. Every day I talked with the very voters Obama was mesmerizing even though they didn’t know much about him. It didn’t take my PhD in communication from Northwestern University to know that the Obama campaign was really connecting with voters—including young people and older souls who hadn’t pushed chads or cranked handles in years.
3. What did you discover was Team Obama’s basic election strategy?
Plenty. Back in 2004, Obama’s campaign team began hatching a plan to elect him to the highest office in the land in only four years. The strategy was to create an untouchable, divine political star who would rise above Hillary Clinton and the eventual Republican candidate. A Chicago type like David Axelrod knew what it would take to knock off Hillary. Team Obama knew their candidate needed a relatively clean past and would have to promise the world—so to speak. Being biracial was a big advantage—especially being biracial and attending Harvard Law School and being smart and good looking. Obama was heavenly for Hyde Park liberals with money to spare. Obamessiah was the answer—what Oprah called “The One.” Voters needed hope. He was the chosen and willing one to offer the nation hope.
4. People joked about “Obamessiah” during the campaign, but you think it was more than just a joke?
Absolutely. Obamessiah was becoming a brand, like Apple computers or Nike shoes. He was the first of his kind, biracial and multicultural. He seemed innocent to politics—like Peter Sellers’ character, Chance, in the movie Being There. He called for peace. He called for an end to partisan bickering. He was for calling home the troops. And, man, he kept his cool. He even looked natural on the cover of GQ. He was hope incarnate. He was the one to believe in. One media pundit called Obama’s candidacy “New Testament.” And one actually said “another chapter could be added to the Bible to chronicle its significance.” On the Larry King Show, Jon Stewart tongue-in-cheek proclaimed, Obama “healed my leprosy.” But behind all the jokes was the unflappable, cool, calm, Obamessiah who could attract tens of thousands at a single rally and cause a few women to faint. He was brilliantly marketed as brand Obamessiah. That’s why Advertising Age—another Chicago creation—gave him his campaign team the marketer-of-the-year award.
5. But how could Team Obama turn a Chicago politician into Obamessiah?
That really fascinated me. But at the time we Americans were ticked off with politicians in general—not just those from the legendary land of streets-and-sanitation payoffs and fixed parking tickets. Still, Team Obama had to go big. Really big. They branded Obama with what I call the “Sacred Six” elements of all major religions: a creation story, sacred words, sacred images, sacred rituals, true believers, and a messianic leader. Willing voters began believing. Obama becomes an overnight sensation. That sensation was the thrill Chris Matthews felt run up his leg on MSNBC.
6. Are you serious? They used religion to brand Obama as Obamessiah?
When you see all the pieces of the Sacred Six in place, it makes total sense. Let’s start with Obamessiah’s creation story. When he stepped up to the podium at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, practically no one knew who he was. Seventeen minutes later, he’s the future of the party. Why? According to his speech, he overcame racism and captured the American dream. If anybody had any doubt, they just had to read Obamessiah’s two books. They were his Old and New Testaments. They testified to his emerging divinity (of course, there were a few missing years, but Jesus Christ had those, too, in the Gospels). And I cover Obama’s missing years in all of their questionable glory.
7. So that’s how Obamessiah got started. What came next?
Sacred words. “Hope” and “change” and “believe.” Sacred images. Obama wore halos and posed next to Superman. Artists mashed him up with Abraham Lincoln and painted patriotic power portraits. Sacred rituals. Tens of thousands at Obama’s rallies, some fainting. Tours of Hyde Park like it was the Holy Land. True believers. They fell in love with Obamessiah. Worshiped him like a rock star. Even Bob Dylan testified like an apostle that Obama was the real thing. I tell the story in the book. Amazing stuff. Neither Oprah nor Dylan had ever endorsed a political candidate. The stars were lining up, so to say.
8. But wasn’t Obama’s election a good thing for a nation plagued with racism? Americans of all colors seemed genuinely excited about electing an African-American to the presidency. What’s your take on that?
Of course people were excited. But nothing is ever completely black and white—especially in Chicago politics, most of the time. Many American whites probably hoped that electing a black man would help them get over some of their longstanding guilt. The symbolic sacrifice of racism. Blacks got on board, too, to be part of something historic. Jesse Jackson and his kind were both flustered and amazed. Obamessiah passed them right by. Republicans defected and evangelicals like Jim Wallis seriously got behind him and brought their own followers to the election booths. Obama built up quite a diverse, quasi-religious movement. And it’s good for America to have elected a person of color to the highest office in the land. But remember that Obama was playing both sides of the color line.
9. How does Branding Obamessiah compare to all the other books out there about Obama?
It’s more interesting, more about politics and popular culture and what persuades us, and less ideologically driven—even though I didn’t vote for Obama and my politics are far more conservative. I don’t hammer away at well-worn talking points or go the conspiracy theory route, the birth certificate stuff. I’m telling an amazing story. And the book is just as much about America and Americans as it is about Obama. Hey, we elected him! We have to give some credit, too. Obama won the “Marketer of the Year” award just six days after the election. Team Obama didn’t just harness the Internet or raise oodles of campaign cash. They tapped into the country’s deepest spiritual yearnings and gave America Obamessiah. My book gets right to the core of Obama’s unbelievably fast and furious rise to the throne.
10. Mark, what do you want people to take away from Branding Obamessiah?
Branding Obamessiah explains the secret behind Obama’s 2008 victory. I pull back the curtain and reveal Team Obama’s secret strategy for their magical candidate. Knowing how they pulled it off the first time, and how voters rose to the occasion, we can all go into the next election with our eyes wide open. What happened in 2008 is the future of national political branding in this country. Like it or not. The Republicans are looking for a branded candidate of their own. Someone who would emerge from the pack to be competitive—even a bit messianic—against Obama should Obamessiah reappear. Maybe even someone who’d look good on the cover of GQ.