Obama’s statement was cogent and precise. He praised Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, and thereby extended an olive branch to his supporters. It was not Obama in full soaring rhetoric; he was relaxed and low-key. It was just right for the medium, which means it was just right for this election, which will be virtual for the foreseeable future.
Virtual campaigning through social media is not new, but it’s now all there is. Communicating with voters is no longer a matter of how eloquent a candidate might be. It’s heavily dependent on whether he can get the lighting right, keep the background from being impersonal but not distracting and dress in a manner that’s just right for his home office as well as your living room.
It’s no easy feat, and it’s Biden’s challenge.
The endorsement video opens with a close-up of Obama offering his concern and condolences as the world deals with the coronavirus pandemic. He settles into his thoughts before he gets to Biden. Obama never mentions the current president by name, but he briskly lays out his negative assessment.
The tight focus on Obama’s face makes the tone more conversational and less like a speech; but it also gives his words a sense of importance. Obama had the advantage of being able to practice his remarks. He’s not being forced to speak off the cuff. But he also must hold his audience’s attention without the benefit of cutaways to video clips or a PowerPoint graph. He’s just talking and asking people to listen.
He’s aided by the setting. The room is creamy white, and there are bookshelves in the background. There are pictures on the shelves, as well as mementos. Awards, maybe. A basketball, definitely. But it’s all a bit blurry. It’s spread out. You can see that things are there and they create a sense of place and personality, but they aren’t distracting. They give the eye a place to go for a brief respite, but you always return to him.
This is stagecraft for your mobile device. It has been tough for Biden to get it right. All too often in his online campaign videos, there’s just too much stuff behind Biden. Or some ill-placed object that draws focus. The lights are too hot. There’s a reason Realtors tell home sellers to declutter before putting their property on the market. People need air, space, oxygen in a room before they can get a clear picture of what’s for sale.
Most of the other former Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed Biden. Some did it from the stage of a rally — back when campaigns were all about handshakes, back-patting and selfies. But Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) offered her endorsement in a video. It looked as though she’d recorded it in an alley at dusk. It was disconcertingly sterile even though it was shot with the informality typically reserved for FaceTiming with a relative.
Making a video look light and breezy while the candidate comes across as articulate and compelling is hard work. (Just trying not to look like a shiny zombie on Zoom is a high hurdle.) Professionally, it’s a little like producing a fashion shoot in which the models all look perfectly natural — as if all they’re wearing is a little lip balm and mascara, a perfect white T-shirt and faded jeans, and tousled hair. No one wakes up like that. It takes a village.
The rules of campaigning have abruptly changed. Being good on social media isn’t just a bonus, it’s mandatory. It’s not superficial or vain to know which is your good side, whether red makes you look ruddy and how you’re best lit. It’s essential.
It’s important to be natural. Conveying that to the public requires a good bit of artifice.
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