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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Emory's Drew Westen thinks Obama's hitting stride

One of the pleasant surprises of this campaign season for me has been the emergence of Emory University Psychology & Psychiatry Professor Drew Westen as an influential national political commentator.

The Political Brain, his wonkish-but-easy-to-read 2007 book on the art of emotionally compelling campaign messaging, struck a nerve with people trying to figure out why some voters who say they prefer Democratic Party policies still vote for Republicans. Since it came out, Westen's been popping up in places like The Huffington Post, The New Republic and on NPR.

With many polls suggesting Democratic nominee Barack Obama was having trouble connecting with some voters whose policy preferences seem to make them obvious Obama supporters, Westen has written several essays on how he thinks Obama can craft more compelling emotional appeals to voters who are leaning Democratic, but are unsure about his candidacy.

In his most recent piece, published in The Huffington Post, Westen says he thinks Obama's Sept. 16 speech on the economy was his most effective attempt yet at closing his campaign's emotional gap with swing voters.

Westen on the speech:

This is the language of the heart, not the cerebrum. It raises not just the pocketbook issues that have Americans so worried but the values of honesty, fairness, and community that are central to what parents teach their children. It speaks of "rules of the road" rather than just "regulations." Sure, his words reflect a grasp of the issues that shines through, giving voters the sense that this is a man and a mind who understands what's wrong and how it needs to be righted. But what was present in this speech was precisely what has been absent from his campaign from the start: a sense of outrage at what Bush and those such as McCain who have been complicit in his malfeasance and mismanagement have done, and a willingness to put aside the campfire songs to tell a campfire story about his opponent as someone who is not the right person to lead.

He continues, providing to-do list for Obama in the debates: look into the camera when you're talking instead of the interviewer, clearly declare your principles in every answer you give, avoid dispassionate, intellectualized answers.

It seems like basic stuff, but it's evident from his weak performance at the Saddleback forum in August that a lot of it doesn't come naturally to Obama.

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