The Summer Olympics in Beijing have captivated Americans and people worldwide as China achieves its goal of communicating harmony. During the Men's Gymnastics final, I was (shockingly) rooting for the Chinese team against the Americans, wanting them to win on their home turf. The only jarring, disturbing and inappropriate aspect of the Olympics to date has been the campaign commercials for both presidential candidates, which are completely out-of-touch with the Olympics message of harmony. Instead of rising to the Olympics occasion and presenting an uplifting message consistent with the mood inspired by the Olympics, the strategists for both John McCain and Barack Obama lowered themselves into the abyss of meaningless, empty, dispiriting political commercialization. Their failure to understand the national zeitgeist during the Olympics and their inability to inspire rather than pander and proselytize does not bode well for the next several months of political advertising.
John McCain has shifted gears under his new Karl Rove-led management team and comes out swinging with a negative Olympics campaign that is dramatically in conflict with the Olympic spirit. McCain's new handlers might have adopted the most impactful strategy by going negative early, but I personally hope that voters turn against him for "approving this message."
By contrast, Barack Obama's Olympics' campaign takes the high road, focusing on energy policy (as does McCain) but the message is so unfocused and indirect that it is lost and, in my opinion, worthless. Perhaps McCain's and Obama's messages will change during the course of the Olympics, but neither candidate recognized the Olympics for the opportunity it offered: a once-only chance to share a vision for America, a vision for the world, and a vision for humanity at a time when Americans are actually feeling positive and globally aware. Most Americans are immersed in negative crap day in and day out. The economy sucks; we are a polarized society; wars are breaking out around the world; parts of Africa are dying; our government and elected officials are being proven to be corrupt, immoral and unethical at all levels; gas prices are restrictive; the national infrastructure is collapsing; medical costs are increasing as the quality of medical care declines; the Yankees are losing. The list of problems and complaints goes on and on.
But the Olympics elevate us above the daily din of despair. Unfortunately, the campaign strategists for both McCain and Obama are so immersed in their own polls and personal agendas, they completely fail to understand the value and unique role the Olympics play in our lives. Why can't our politicians seek to elevate the national psyche? The Olympics accomplish what our leaders should at least try to do: they inspire us; they encourage us to believe that we can all get along; they impose a positive and uplifting spirit on a global stage. I expected the McCain campaign to focus on polls and newly implemented negative campaign strategies. The resulting commercial ("The Real Obama") achieves its negative goals by questioning Obama's ability to lead and capitalizing on the pop culture spin generated by his worldwide popularity. We expected a Rove-trained cadre of operatives to deliver such a message.
But what has become of Barack Obama? What a stage for Obama to counter that message and reinforce the positive aspects of his unique ability to lead, to bring us together as the Olympics bring us together. What an opportunity to reinforce his strengths as a global leader -- yes a celebrity -- who might actually retain the Olympics spirit into his presidency. Instead, his handlers placed too much reliance on polls that establish energy as Americans' top concern. Polls are focused on the past, and Obama's strategists should instead be looking to the future. They should understand that the medium is often the message and used the Olympics as an international stage to reinforce his popularity and the unique opportunity we have to elect a president who can lead our nation in the spirit of the Olympics. Obama's Olympics commercials could have and should have emphasized his leadership, his belief in family, his belief in himself and in our nation and world in very troubled times. They could have elevated the political debate. They could have reinforced that Barack Obama is the personification of the Olympic spirit at the very time voters are most receptive to hearing that message. They failed.