Obama: The New Brand

In the crucial early primary states of New Hampshire and South Carolina, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill) has now, according to the latest polls, pulled dead even with Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) In Iowa, both of them still trail Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), but even there, Obama is nipping at Clinton’s heels.

The question is: why is Obama getting traction now? Why, all of a sudden, has this junior Senator from Illinois, grabbed so much attention, support and money? Why has he already graced the covers of Time and Newsweek multiple times? Why is he attracting huge crowds? Why is he creating a sensation?

The conventional explanation is that he’s the first credible black man to run for president. And that’s not a small detail. But that’s not what’s really going on here.

The real explanation for the phenomenon of Barack Obama is this: he is the first new BRAND of the 21st century.

Think about it this way: with this presidential election, we have finally entered the new millennium. The first two elections of the new millennium — 2000 and 2004 — weren’t really new at all. Bush vs. Gore? Bush vs. Kerry? These were 20th century races. They were Vietnam-era guys. In fact, the Vietnam war was all over these campaigns, from CBS’s use of fraudulent documents questioning Bush’s National Guard service to Sen. Kerry’s “reporting for duty” at the 2004 Democratic convention. They were running like it was 1966. Or 1968 or 1972. They were partying like it was 1999, because it WAS 1999.

They were — they ARE — old, tired brands.

Now, our politics have finally caught up with the calendar, which says we’re already seven years into the new millennium. They have also caught up with our technology, which speeds along like Bill Clinton through a meeting with Hillary.

In this new era, the rules are different. The generation is different. The way people get their news is different. Many people don’t read books or newspapers or magazines anymore. They get their news off the internet, their cell phones, and from YouTube.|

The forces bringing in this new millennium are converging — and they are converging around Barack Obama. Why? Because Obama is a new brand. And Hillary is an old brand. Both of the Clintons are tired, spent brands.

If you are a new voter, the Clintons have been around since you were two years old. If you are under thirty, they have been around since you were in middle school. Even if you are under forty, there is enormous Clinton fatigue because in this age of cut-to-the-quick life and super high-speed connections (which is what Generations X, Y, and now Z were raised on), then the Clintons make you yawn. They are yesterday’s newspaper. They aren’t even on yesterday’s blog.

It must be beginning to dawn on Team Clinton that this is a force beyond even their control. A few weeks ago, they sent Bill out to say that although “some people” think the Clintons are “yesterday’s news,” he said he thought “yesterday’s news was pretty good.”

If that’s all they have to counter this tidal wave, then Hillary had better start rehearsing, “You want fries with that?” Because although she seems relatively dominant now, there’s a lot more vulnerability in her candidacy than meets the eye. The technology is 21st century, and until now, the political thinking has been 20th century. But now the politics is catching up — and fast. People are used to getting the latest thing. They want it fast, hip, cool, and new. This is not the Clintons. Their brand is as exhausted as the Bush brand is.

This is why Hillary made a big mistake when she attacked Obama recently for his statement that he would talk directly to America’s worst enemies. Her attack brought him up to her level. Frontrunners need to pretend as if their primary competitors are mere nuisances, and not deign to engage them directly. By going after him, she elevated him –and his brand.

Team Clinton rarely makes a mistake. But it must be occurring to them — between their photo shoots for Vogue and fending off “hecklers” — that there is a bigger danger to her than they ever anticipated.

It’s called modern times.

She is the candidate of a bygone era. Obama, on the other hand, projects a futurist image. He’s very 21st century. And that’s why he’s doing so well.

Try as they might, those old dogs — Bill and Hillary — cannot be rebranded. She’s taking a stab at it by running on “change,” by trotting out her Generation Y daughter, Chelsea, and by spotlighting her glamorous 32-year-old traveling chief of staff, Huma Abedin. But all of this is akin to re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The Clintons are Richard Nixon to Barack Obama’s JFK in 1960.

They are George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama’s Bill Clinton in 1992.

Sometimes, the old hand wins — when people want steadiness and reassurance. But when America is in an era like this one, ready to sprout new buds like a tulip in spring, the old guard doesn’t do it. They want the new brand. And that’s one of the great ironies of this race: Hillary Clinton may be defeated by the Bill Clinton of 2008: Barack Obama.