And look at this - even Fox News has run with the image:
None of the other candidates use this device with anything like the same consistency. McCain seems to use it occasionally, probably by accident. Clinton barely uses it at all. Look at her photographic trail and you can see giant US flags - which could be read as a sign of megalomania and overcompensation; Bush tends to use them too - or campaign decorations with no visible flags.
Here's her NY victory speech. It's ancient history now, but - ironically giving her attempts to outlaw flag-ish disrespect - what has she done to the flag?
A more typical shot:
I'm not cherry picking here. After a short search I could find a good selection of similar Obama flag shots, and only this comparable one - which looks like an accident - for Hillary:
(As an aside, glum people seem to be common in Hillary photos. She really should end this thing - she's so out of her depth it's getting painful to watch.)
Would viewers be persuaded by something as simple as this? Absolutely - it's a clear statement and a clear frame, and it's used consistently enough to be deliberate. Someone on the Obama team is visually literate enough to understand that you can frame your message metaphorically on camera in the same way that you can by triggering associations in text.
The framing here couldn't be more explicit, and the media are responding to it as they should, by capturing the shots they're supposed to. Not only is it a patriotic frame, it's a presidential frame, deliberately intended to invoke the duly elected speechmaker-in-chief.
It might - or might not - be a stretch to suggest there are also echoes of 9/11 there, with their suggestions of solidarity, which viewers will respond to in a conditioned way.
Theme 2: Not a Muslim
This was a textbook show-don't-tell move which destroyed the credibility of the Muslim accusations. By concentrating on his pastor, his church and his god, Obama didn't have to bother to explain that actually, no, he's not a Muslim, thankyou for asking. He's totally on-board with the Christian thing, and he even goes to church regularly. And if his pastor says odd things sometimes - doesn't yours too?
This is genius-level subliminal redirection. It kills the Muslim rumours while also spinning a powerful narrative of identification and inclusion for the benefit of our many Christian viewers at home. One of the key points which anyone watching this speech will have taken away with them is that Obama has a relationship with his church and his pastor which is just like their own. So not only is he not a Muslim, he's their kind of Christian. He knows what being a Christian is like. He knows what it means to doubt and question your pastor, and then to have to speak to your community about the weakness and confusion of your faith.
Obama's speech wasn't just a political speech, it was a dialogue with others of his Christian community in which he questioned, challenged and discussed race and unity.
Okay - so he did it all on his own, with not so much of the listening. Or actual discussing. Or dialogue, even.
But that won't be how it's felt and remembered. As of yesterday, any wavering moderate Christians, and probably some of the extremist fundies too, will have decided that Obama is someone they can feel comfortable with. He's literally speaking their language. And even if in practice he doesn't really go to church much - someone on dKos mentioned that in his professorial days Obama could hardly be called a church stalwart - that won't be how it plays.
Theme 3: Business as usual
Barack Obama's Speech on Race - New York Times
But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country - a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.
There's nothing subtle here, and given what we know of his foreign policy leanings, it's not a surprise. This is a clear signal to AIPAC and the Establishment that Obama isn't going to end the War on Islam, that Israel's treatment of Palestinians is justified and - most of all - that Obama is a card-carrying member of The Party. He's not a revolutionary, he doesn't want to change America's view of itself, or its relation to the world.
He's on the team, and he's a team player.
Theme 4: It's
not all about me
This is where we are right now. It's a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy - particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.
But I have asserted a firm conviction - a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people - that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.
Very smooth. 'We' means 'you and me' - you and Obama, not you and Clinton, or you and McCain. He's flagging the issue, and then he's owning the issue, which cuts out the competition from this semantic and rhetorical territory.
And then you get 'there is no choice' - so we have to do this. And we have to do it with him, and his humble imperfect candidacy.
Theme 5: It's the doubletalk
For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle - as we did in the OJ trial - or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
We can do that.
Yes, we can. We have permission now. He says some other things in the next paragraph. But remember - next time Hillary plays the race card, we can pounce on her.
In fact this is the defining mode of the speech - it's internally contradictory on many of its main points, not so much a synthesis as a litany of have-it-all opposites.
Obama supports Wright and won't disown him, but he unequivocally condemns what he said.
Race is an issue, but even if people are angry, they're not so angry they don't have to time to stop and salute the flag and remember how great America is.
Obama is just an 'umble candidate, but he's your humble candidate, who believes in great things, and promises better times.
This is something-for-everyone speechifying. It hits all the rhetorical keynotes, targetting the emotional responses of various key demographics - there are kids, there are old people, there's a down-home story, there's solidarity, and a bit of condemnation, there's black worship and white reassurance, and gargantuan attempts to trigger viewer identification; there are also flags, and promises, and there might as well be cute kittens.
But it doesn't ask for, or promise, anything specific, except to hint broadly that Obama will somehow magically deal with the issue, because America is greater than everyone, and America will make everything better, and Obama humbly presumes to implore America to do this.
Which I think is the key point - this is where he wins it:
Obama has dramatised himself as the mediator and priest who stands between you and the all-bountiful and good thing that is America.
If he can keep that identification going and doesn't destroy it by saying or doing something that breaks the spell, it's going to be impossible for him to lose.
Out of interest, it's worth making an obvious comparison to MLK's 'I have a dream' speech:
In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
There's no false modesty. No plays for identification. No prevarication. He knows what he wants and he's saying it's time to get it. He's not speechifying, he's demanding.
In comparison Obama isn't demanding anything - because you don't demand things from god. Instead he's supplicating before America, promising to be good, asking for forgiveness for his less patient brothers and sisters, and asking if maybe something can be done.
The framing is meta-religious, all the way down to the bone.
Here's what Edward Bernays had to say about campaigning in his book Propaganda :
If [our candidate] were a propagandist, on the other hand, although he would still use the radio, he would use it as an instrument of a well-planned strategy. Since he is campaigning on the issue of [X], he would not merely tell people that [X affects their lives] but would create circumstances which would make his contention dramatic and self-evident. [...]
In whatever way he dramatized the issue, the attention of the public would be attracted to the question before he addressed them personally. Then, when he spoke to his millions of listeners on the radio, he would not be seeking to force an argument down the throats of a public thinking of other things and annoyed by another demand on its attention; on the contrary, he would be answering spontaneous questions and expressing the emotional demands of a public already keyed to a certain pitch of interest in the subject.
By accident or design, Obama has managed to dramatise the race issue perfectly, and his public has been primed and ready for this speech for almost as long as he has been running his campaign.
Clinton meanwhile has tried to dramatise the gender issue, and failed - not because she's a woman, but because the requirement for entrance is proof that a candidate is a church-going patriot, and she forgot to supply that. Instead she has dramatised the less appealing sides of the issue - demanding a turn, demanding equal opportunity, but doing it as an outsider, looking in on the big prize, stating inevitability while lethally dramatising its opposite.
Obama has claimed the prize, claimed the territory, and proven he's on the team. He's not demanding anything, because he's not one of those angry over-excitable non-whites.
Even though, in a way, he is. But not that way.
Still, he knows it's important and he solemnly promises to ask America to look into it for you, if you vote for him. Because - are you getting this yet? - he can't do it otherwise.
So if you wouldn't mind.