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The Big Show

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008; 8:00 AM

It was like a well-produced "60 Minutes" report on the struggling middle class, if those who are struggling all happened to live in swing states. Call it "30 Minutes."

Obama did the voice-over, playing the role of correspondent, and the goal, of course, was to intertwine his personal story with the difficulties and aspirations of ordinary Americans whose votes he needs to put him over the top.

The Obama infomercial last night began in a faux Oval Office--the desk, the tree behind the windows, the flag pin on the man who once disdained them--that to my eye seemed a tad presumptuous. It was, naturally, designed to get you to envision him as the 44th president.

The mini-portraits--the injured tire worker in Missouri, the retired railroad worker in Ohio, the widow with two jobs in New Mexico, the teacher in Colorado, the auto worker in Kentucky--were polished and, at times, quite moving. Obama wants it known that he is fighting for them.

What also worked was depicting Barack in people's living rooms, talking about what he wants to do for them. (Although how did the tax cuts suddenly move down from people earning $250,000 to those at 200K?)

What didn't work were the brief tributes by senators and governors--who might as well have been touting the slice-o-matic--and the snippets of Obama's Greek column convention speech. We've already seen that, and it was out of sync with the tone of the ad.

Which brings me to the final three minutes. The idea of moving from the safety of a videotape to a live event was inspired. But doing it in a cheering Florida stadium with Obama going to the overblown rhetoric and vowing to "change the world," not so much. The whole idea of the show was to bring Obama down from the clouds and into the street. The big rally came close to canceling out the man-of-the-people image so carefully constructed in the previous 27 minutes.

Still, the show was CBS, NBC, Fox and four other networks--the biggest such splash since Ross Perot's pie charts--and it probably helped at the margins. Even if it didn't, I don't get some of the advance criticism that the show would boomerang because of its excessive nature. No one had to watch. They could always switch over to "Pushing Daisies" on ABC.

If the press was inclined to hammer the Democratic nominee for buying the election after blowing off public financing, the infomercial would be Exhibit A. But the press is giving him a pass on the issue.

One other observation: Has Obama been watching too many Palin speeches? He kept talking about "workin' families" and was in full g-dropping mode.

"As a piece of political theater," says USA Today, "the program was a low-key triumph, a message perfectly attuned to the cool side of the medium."

"It offered even the swiftest channel-flipper the chance to see Obama looking presidential, helping to condition voters to that possibility," says the Los Angeles Times. "And once again it proved to John McCain, and everyone else, how Obama's deep pool of campaign cash has allowed him to rewrite the rules of the campaign."


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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