Election 2008

Alex Brandon/AP

Obama Ramps up Negativity, But Is it Enough?

August 20, 2008 11:01 AM
by Liz Colville
Efforts by Obama to respond more sharply to McCain’s assaults run the risk of accelerating an already negative campaign. But observers question the strategy’s effectiveness.

A More Negative Obama?

Following Ariz. Sen. John McCain’s ad calling Ill. Sen. Barack Obama the “biggest celebrity in the world,” which accused the younger senator of being unprepared to lead the nation, the Obama campaign became perceptibly more critical of Sen. McCain. But some claim it has not been critical enough.

The candidates have been focused on each other’s character, especially in the ads centered on celebrity. But following that exchange, Sen. Obama released an ad describing his own energy policy, with no reference to McCain, suggesting that the Democrat is choosing to work on defining and defending his own message rather than criticizing his opponent’s.

The Republican candidate has “been the more forthright of the two contenders when it comes to going on the offensive,” writes the BBC in an August 6 analysis of campaign developments. But the article also contends that Obama has “aimed regular blows at his rival,” including assertions that McCain’s time in the Senate has amounted to “years of inaction” and that he stands for “policies of the past.”

But Obama appeared mostly to deflect McCain’s accusations and defend his stance during a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Orlando, Fla. August 19. In the New York Times blog The Caucus, John M. Broder reports that Obama “struck back with tough language” following an appearance by McCain the day before in which McCain questioned Obama’s motives for running for president. Obama rejected the notion that he is putting ambition before his country, defended his position on the war in Iraq, and spoke definitively about the Russia–Georgia conflict, saying there “is no possible justification for Russia’s actions.”

There is evidence from Obama ads flying under the radar, primarily in battleground states, that his campaign is mounting a tougher offensive on McCain, but just may not be publicizing it. According to the Washington Times’ Christina Bellantoni, an Obama ad airing in Indiana and featuring residents of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana paints McCain as in denial about the economy, drawing on a seven-month-old quote of the senator saying that he did not foresee an economic recession in the United States.

Background: Was Clinton Obama’s warm-up?

N.Y. Sen. Hillary Clinton’s race for the Democratic nomination saw her shift from a “misty-eyed” candidate sharing words with women voters to a voice that was, within a matter of weeks, “angrier, sharper and far more negative toward Obama,” the Los Angeles Times noted in March. In the spring, Clinton began launching more critical attacks, in particular questioning her opponent’s experience, a tactic that McCain has adopted. Clinton was able to “put Obama on defense in areas that have long been his biggest strengths,” and for a time gained ground on him, the Times wrote.

Opinion & Analysis: Is negative effective?

Professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia suggested to the BBC that it would be imprudent for Obama, whose central message is one of change and a new style of politics, to launch a negative campaign: “The candidate of fresh, optimistic change cannot afford to go too negative.”

MSNBC’s First Read blog argues that Obama may be intentionally trying to deemphasize his campaign’s attacks; McCain’s team may be “much more comfortable unveiling their negative ads, perhaps because they want the free press that comes with them. But make no mistake, Obama’s running plenty of negative TV ads, particularly in the industrial Midwestern states.”

But for Obama to gain some momentum in a race that appears neck-and-neck, he may have to detail his thoughts on McCain further, rather than simply defending his own beliefs and debunking McCain’s accusations. New York Times columnist Frank Rich suggests that McCain may be just as much of an unknown to Americans as Obama: the media’s “default cliché is to present [McCain] as the Old Faithful everyone already knows. They routinely salute his ‘independence,’ his ‘maverick image’ and his ‘renegade reputation.’” And McCain could ironically be benefiting from the large amount of media attention being paid to his opponent.

Reference: Track the presidential race with polls


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