Why Obama Won Last Night

Today op-ed writers and bloggers alike are going critical on Obama’s performance in last night’s debate.  Like teenagers on OMG (Oh My God!), they say things like, “Like, did you hear what Obama said in the middle?” and “OMG, Hillary had the best put down.”

A basic dictum in anthropology, and much of life, is to pay attention to both what people say and what people do.  And the doing often matters much more.  But today’s critics are all focused on the message, not the medium or even the meta-message.  From the perspective of this neuroanthropologist, Obama won.  Here’s why.

Let’s talk medium.  A nationally televised debate.  And in this debate it is the performance that matters as much as the words said.  Last night for the first time Obama acted presidential, not just inspirational.  “The buck stops here”–that was the most significant moment of the debate.  People want leadership from a president.  Obama showed himself ready.

The whole debate format backed that up, reinforcing a clear but largely unconscious conclusion.  For the first time Clinton said Obama was presidential.  The moderators defered to Obama, even with their challenging follow-up questions–reporters after a leader.  Remember the moderator comment, apologizing to Clinton for Obama speaking more?  All Clinton could comment was, “I noticed.”

In the primate world an avoidant gaze is a mark of submission.  Clinton, time and again, had her eyes wandering around the crowd.  Obama looked directly at the moderators or at the cameras.  The implicit message?  Here’s the leader.

And the meta-message?  Whatever the policy debates and the snipping over verbal gaffes and significant others (OMG! they know people!), Obama had the clearer meta-message.  We need change.  We need to address the broad problems facing all of us.  We need to get past politics as usual.

Why is this important?  Obama, in responding to criticisms, consistently and clearly came back to his meta message, his unifying theme.  Clinton came off as defensive in her meta-message–But I have experience, But I’ve been vetted by Republican attacks.  It was not about leadership.  And it was dispersed, rather than focused.  Focus matters.

What about those spontaneous moments?  Applause, muted and quickly cut off, came for Obama.  People heard that, in the room and on television.  People saw the two candidates’ eyes.  People followed not just the questions, but how the reporters acted.  People got the take-home meta-message.  Context, interactions, behaviors–Obama acted like a winner in a convincing way reinforced by those around him.

Do I agree with all his words?  I don’t know.  I don’t even remember them all.  But I know what I saw.

2 thoughts on “Why Obama Won Last Night

  1. Here’s an interesting follow-up, a poll that has followed the same group of voters from January until now. Their conclusion: “In a dramatic reversal, an Associated Press-Yahoo! News poll found that a clear majority of Democratic voters now say Sen. Barack Obama has a better chance of defeating Republican Sen. John McCain in November than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

    The AP article is called “Ongoing nomination fight hurting Clinton more than Obama”: http://news.yahoo.com/page/election-2008-political-pulse-obama-gains;_ylt=AsbZJDONnmK3dX4lYldCtfms0NUE

  2. For an alternate view, well argued and about the sacrifices and realities of politics, see David Brook’s piece How Obama Fell to Earth: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/18/opinion/18brooks.html?em&ex=1208750400&en=34d002f8eb6da2e7&ei=5087

    And for a final take, several days later, on the debate itself, the relationship between media and politics, and the changing state of the country, see Frank Rich’s Shoddy! Tawdry! A Televised Train Wreck! http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/20/opinion/20rich.html

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