“Yes We Can”: Barack Obama’s Road to the White House, 2008

Barack Obama Announces Presidential Campaign with wife, Michelle and daughters in Springfield, IL, February 10, 2007
Courtesy Ben Stanfield (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the following account California State University, Fresno history professor Malik Simba summarizes the 2008 presidential campaign of Illinois Senator Barack Obama.  Professor Simba reminds us of the many challenges faced by the campaign as well as the daring and innovative strategies it successfully employed to make relative political newcomer Obama the 44th President of the United States.

Barack Obama’s campaign for the Presidency in 2008 has been described by many political analysts as “brilliant” and “virtually flawless.”  Despite his inexperience in national politics and limited experience in state politics (Obama was first elected to political office in 1994), he assembled a remarkably cohesive and effective “no drama” campaign team which in turn helped him craft and deliver his message of hope and change that ultimately resonated with the majority of American voters on election night, November 4, 2008.

The origins of this “improbable” campaign, to use Obama’s words, can be traced to July 27, 2004.  Obama was on his way to an easy victory in his campaign for the U.S. Senate from Illinois when he was invited to give the keynote address at the Democratic Convention in Boston.  Many pundits refer to this speech as the one which placed Illinois State Senator Obama before the national electorate and where he established himself as a different type of black American politician.

Obama described himself as a post-civil rights, multi-cultural “Horatio Alger.” He rejected the left and the right divisiveness that had marred American politics for decades and in his rhetoric embraced a singular United States of America while laying claim to the values of hope and change for a better America.  That speech before millions of American television viewers generated a resounding outpouring of national support.  Consequently Obama toured the nation to introduce himself to the electorate, wrote a best-selling book, The Audacity of Hope, to extend that introduction, and in January 2007, organized a presidential campaign committee.

On February 10, 2007, Barack Obama announced his candidacy at the Old State Capitol Building in Springfield, Illinois.  Obama gave an initial insight into his presidential campaign philosophy by making his announcement at the same place that Abraham Lincoln, in 1852, gave his “House Divided” speech. Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech called for a house united not divided.  However, it took his surprise victory over frontrunner, New York Senator and former First Lady Hillary Clinton, in the Iowa caucuses, on January 3, nearly one year later, to persuade political observers that the junior Senator from Illinois was a serious contender for the Presidency.   The Iowa win and later South Carolina primary victory on January 19, galvanized support from what was rapidly becoming his base: youth, blacks, Hispanics, and the distressed white middle class, both rural and urban. As the campaign progressed, endorsements came from a diverse group of individuals such as Oprah Winfrey, Caroline Kennedy, Tricia Nixon Cox, Maria Shriver, Senator Robert Byrd, Ted Kennedy, and many others.

Senator Obama’s campaign was especially energized by thousands of youthful volunteers working hard under the slogan, “Fired up! Ready to go!” With their support Obama won a string of primary and caucus victories beginning on Super Tuesday (February 5).  By March 15 Obama had won primaries or caucuses in eleven states including Vermont, Wyoming, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oregon. With these wins, pledged delegates and superdelegates began a slow but decisive move to endorse Senator Obama’s candidacy.  After the primaries in Montana and South Dakota, Obama had enough delegates to win the nomination of his party.  Senator Clinton, recognizing this fait accompli, ended her candidacy on June 7th and endorsed Senator Obama for President.

Barack Obama’s hard-won nomination after a six month contest, where he was defeated in important primaries in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, rested on his ability to deflect and moderate political controversies. The controversy over Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, which surfaced in March 2008, was potentially the most damaging.  Rev. Wright, the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, was a leading proponent of Black Liberation Theology.  In one taped sermon, Wright was seen and heard saying, “God Damn America.” While he meant this as a condemnation of the policies of the United States government, this and other controversial statements by Rev. Wright were offered as evidence of Obama’s radical “un-American” beliefs.

Obama moved quickly to defuse the controversy.  In response to Wright’s remarks he gave a speech in Philadelphia where he condemned the minister’s words but also argued that the issue of race in the United States is complicated, contradictory, and oftentimes personal.  To that point he said,

“I can no more disown [Rev. Wright], than I can disown my white grandmother, a woman who helped raise me. A woman who sacrificed again and again for me. A woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world. But a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her on the street, and who, on more than one occasion, has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me.”

Obama talked at length in that speech about the gifts of America – freedom, opportunity, equality, and that even though racism exists, this country, this generation, and he personally, have moved beyond the injustices of the past. Obama’s speech was widely embraced and accepted, but Wright’s continued harangues forced the Obama family to leave Trinity Church.

Obama’s credentials to be President were challenged on numerous other occasions such as with his alleged close association with former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers and the internet rumor that he was a secret Muslim because of his alleged education in a madrassa [religious school] while he lived in Indonesia with his mother and stepfather. Both Senator Clinton and Senator McCain, in their own separate ways, refuted these false charges.

Other controversies concerning his actual position on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), accusations about his patriotism because he stopped wearing an American flag pin in his lapel, his comments about small-town America at a San Francisco fundraiser, and Michelle Obama’s verbal miscue about her love of country were all seized by both Democratic opponents in the primary and later Republicans in the general campaign as evidence of Obama’s deficiencies as a presidential candidate and presumably as President.  Through all of these controversies Obama was able to use his powerfully persuasive rhetorical and analytical abilities to answer these charges and keep his campaign focused on the prize.

Obama’s remarkable victory, however, was grounded in more than his ability to deflect spurious charges.  The genius of the campaign was his ability to inspire.  Widely considered the best political speaker of the past four decades, Obama’s words and his vision of a different America attracted the support of millions of previously cynical and disillusioned voters.  Attracting these new voters proved crucial to his election victory.

If Obama revived the previously lost art of inspired political speaking, he and his campaign also incorporated new technologies including the Internet, YouTube, and cell phone messaging, all to reach various and often targeted audiences, especially young voters.  Moreover volunteer artists and musicians dedicated themselves to the Obama cause and candidacy.  Hip hop artist Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, for example, morphed Obama’s “Yes, We Can” speech into an award winning video/song, and with the help of various young Hollywood stars he made it an Internet hit. Millions of young Obama supporters began to use MySpace and Facebook.com to promote voter registration. Amber Lee Ettinger, a scantily dressed model who came to be known as “The Obama Girl,” sang, in her video, “I Got a Crush…on Obama” and it became the most viewed entry on YouTube for months.  African American magazines such as Essence, Jet, Ebony, and Black Enterprise, pop culture magazines such as Rolling Stone, Spin, People, US, and even The National Enquirer, and news magazines such as Time and Newsweek competed for the most appealing covers featuring Obama, his wife Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha.

Barack Obama’s presidential campaign raised nearly $750 million dollars, breaking all records for fundraising.  The campaign, as importantly, established a new model for presidential fundraising, appealing to enthusiastic supporters including a network of millions of new voters for relatively small donations.  It also incorporated the most advanced fundraising technology through the Internet and other electronic communication sources to far outstripped all of its opponents.  In fact, the campaign’s enormous fundraising abilities allowed Obama, a Democrat, to outspend his Republican opponent for the first time in recent memory.

Obama’s national popularity became iconic as hundreds of thousands of voters turned out for his stump speeches. These large numbers were duplicated when Obama went overseas to solidify his foreign policy credentials.  In July 2008 he traveled to Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Gaza, Germany, France, and England. In Berlin, Germany, Obama gave a speech before a quarter of a million people.  This was the largest audience for a presidential candidate traveling abroad. A united world without walls to divide was a central idea of this speech. With the tour completed, Obama returned to the United States, a respected citizen of the world who had just met with numerous heads of state and senior commanders of  America’s armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He also became arguably the most popular American figure around the world.

On August 28, 2008, ironically the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Illinois Senator Barack Obama accepted the nomination of the National Democratic Party at its convention in Denver.  Again breaking precedent, Obama gave his acceptance speech not in the Pepsi Center where the party conducted its other business affairs, but at Invesco Field (formerly Mile High Stadium) before an estimated 85,000 supporters.  Just before the convention Obama chose as his running mate Delaware Senator Joe Biden.  Despite their contentious battles in a number of primaries in April, May, and June, Senator Hillary Clinton gave a gracious concession speech where she pledged her support for Obama and called for a unified Democratic party.

Although Arizona Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, and Barack Obama had been campaigning against each other since June, the national presidential campaign moved into its last, most intensive stage in early September after both parties had their conventions.  Republican “Grand Old Party” (G.O.P.) nominee Senator McCain surprised most observers by selecting conservative, self-professed “hockey mom” Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska, as his vice presidential running mate.  McCain hoped his selection would solidify his conservative electorate base and pull the “Hillary vote” of white middle-class women to the G.O.P. standard bearers.   This strategy worked briefly as the McCain-Palin ticket witnessed a spike in the polls. However, the spike disappeared after several disastrous television interviews given by Governor Palin.

As brilliant as the Obama campaign seems in hindsight, it was also helped by an enormous stroke of political luck.  The investment and banking crisis that began on Wall Street months earlier surfaced in mid-September with the request by President George W. Bush for an unprecedented $700 million dollar bailout of major banking, insurance, and investment firms by the federal government.  The crisis took center stage and allowed the American people to contrast the different approaches and proposals offered by the candidates as well as assess their reaction to the situation.  Most observers concluded that Obama appeared to be the more deliberate, thoughtful and “presidential” of the two candidates during this period.

That “presidential” demeanor surfaced as well during the three major debates between Obama and McCain in September and October.  Most of the polls of voters viewing the debates indicated that Senator Obama won each debate.  He was calm, cool, analytical, informed, and conveyed to the American electorate that he was truly ready to become the 44th President of the United States.

On election night, November 4, 2008, a crowd of nearly 125,000 gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park to hear what they anticipated would be a victory speech by the man who was now the city’s most famous resident.  At approximately 10:00 pm Chicago time the major networks announced that Barack Obama had won the Presidency. The multiracial crowd wearing Obama paraphernalia had become a sea of emotion as thousands of people began crying and waving American flags.  At 10:59 p.m. Barack Hussein Obama took center stage to make his historic victory speech.   The Obama era in American history had begun.