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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Greg Mitchell: Why Obama Won: The Making of a President 2008

greg-mitchell-why-obama-won.thumbnail.jpgWhy Obama Won: The Making of a President 2008

Beneath its ambitious title, this is a modest book. Greg Mitchell does not undertake a grand investigation into the multiple factors that came together to bring about the historic Obama triumph. That synthesis awaits deeper inquiry and analysis.

The veteran editor, author, liberal blogger, and self-described political junkie Mitchell provides a readable, entertaining, and perceptive month-by-month diary of – and reflection on – the 2008 presidential campaign as seen through both the “mainstream” (corporate) media and the ever-more politically significant eyes of “new,” that is Web-based media, where progressives (Mitchell argues) hold the day.

The diary is constructed from Mitchell’s blog-posts on media election coverage and commentary during the campaign. The subject focus is fairly wide-ranging. It includes the Republican as well as the Democratic primaries. Mitchell’s entries often include insightful comments on issues related to such topics as mainstream media bias, race, foreign policy, the ideological orientation of Netroots activists (not intellectual “Chomsky lovers” on the whole, he says), and more.

In one of his entries for November 2007, Mitchell regales us with the hilarious, short-lived Steven Colbert campaign, including Colbert’s visit on Tim Russert’s Meet the Press.

An April 2008 entry reflects on Senator Joe Lieberman’s (“D”- CT) preposterous suggestion (on the Brian and Judge radio show, following an earlier bizarre Marx-Obama connection suggested by neoconservative New York Times columnist William Kristol) that Obama might be “a Marxist” (yes, a “Marxist,” you read that correctly).

An August 2008 entry tells the story of how MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann ripped into veteran AP reporter Charles Babington for claiming that Obama’s Democratic Convention speech lacked specifics and novelty.

An October 2008 entry tells about the popular syndicated conservative columnist Kathleen Parker had the nerve to question Sarah Palin’s qualifications to be vice president. A November 2008 entry reports that Dick Cheney’s hometown newspaper (in Caspar, Wyoming) endorsed Obama.

Another October 2008 entry riffs in interesting ways on how Bruce Springsteen’s endorsement was helping Obama get some media counterweight to Sarah Palin’s slams on Obama’s alleged friendship with the terrible terrorist (turned education professor and charter school advocate) Bill Ayers,

If you want a concise, well-written, and often amusing summary of numerous key campaign media episodes – e.g. Hillary Clinton’s bizarre insinuation that Obama was vulnerable to assassination ala RFK – then this is your book.

Beyond all this chronologically arranged detail, Mitchell also advances an underlying argument about new (Web-based) media’s critical role in the conduct and outcome of the campaign and election. The argument does not appear in fully explicit terms until the concluding pages (in the chapter titled “November 2008”) and it comes largely in other commentators’ words. It consists of the following core propositions on Why Obama Won:

* Obama benefited from a largely Web-based social network (including Facebook) that “flanked and outflanked traditional news media.”

* Obama benefited from money raised, voters reached, issues advanced, and voters informed by the Internet.

* The U.S. populace has moved far enough beyond racial prejudice to elect a black president (though Mitchell does interject some sober assessments of Obama’s difficulty winning over white voters, who supported McCain “by a landslide, by about 56% to 42 %”).

* Netroots organizers and leaders like Daily Kos’s Markos Moulitsas successfully pushed hard and raised funds for Democratic candidates beneath and “beyond ideology and special interest groups.” They did to with a welcome Howard Deanian commitment to contesting all fifty states, not just the traditional regional strongholds of the Democratic Party.

* Obama benefited from changing racial and age demographics (the rising non-white percentage and the passing away of older Republican voters). He rocked the youth vote, itself highly sensitive to new media.

* Netroots fundraising helped Obama garner 3 million contributors, “an unprecedented number.”

* Progressive dominance of the Internet/New Media effectively encountered the Republicans’ Swift-boating attack machine this time

* Sarah Palin was usefully exposed as grossly unqualified in both old and new media.

Yes, Mitchell’s arguments overlap a fair deal. If you had to (unfairly) boil his answer the question his title asks to two words, those words would be “The Internet.”

I (today’s Firedoglake Book Salon host, Paul Street) think Mitchell’s thesis/theses could have been made a bit more explicitly and forcefully at the front of the book. Some and perhaps many left-progressive readers will (I do) raise some unpleasant (or at least difficult) questions Greg does not address about the role that big corporate and Wall Street money (and vetting) and old corporate media approval played in bringing about the ascendancy of (what many of us consider to be) a fairly centrist, business- and military-friendly presidential candidate – a judgment on Obama that ranges as close to the mainstream as The New York Times’ Paul Krugman (an Obama critic and John Edwards supporter during the primary season) and The New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar (who described Obama as “deeply conservative” in May of 2007) to the more “far left” venues (e.g. ZNet, Z Magazine, Black Agenda Report, CounterPunch, and Dissident Voice to name a few) where I (an actual 21st century Marxist and Chomsky-admirer) reside. There are related questions, perhaps, to ask, about the roles of the Iraq War and above all (what displaced “Iraq” as the main campaign issue well before the Iowa Caucus), “the economy” (epic economic crisis by mid September of 2008) played in determining Obama’s election and about…no, I’ll stop because I don’t want to pre-empt others’ questions, comments, or criticisms and I want to save my own questions and criticisms for the discussion.

I want to thank Greg Mitchell for writing a provocative book that (a) recaptures a lot of important media and political history, (b) advances important reflections on the role of new media (and to a lesser extent the role of race and demography) in the remaking of American politics, and (c) entertains. I don’t think Mitchell’s volume advances anything like a full answer to the question posed by his title, but I do think future investigators are going to have to pay attention to both the content and the argument presented in Why Obama Won. I should also add that I very much appreciate Greg’s astute reflections and warnings (pp. 99-101) regarding Obama’s dangerous commitment to deepening the so-called “good war” – the U.S. quagmire – in Afghanistan.

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Paul Street

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