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10.30.08

Obama's Depressing Infomercial

Though brilliantly produced, the "Obamercial" was too much about American victimhood and too little about American success.

Now we find out. Remember that pro-Obama YouTube mashup, based on Apple’s 1984 Superbowl ad, in which Hillary Clinton’s face on a giant screen replaced IBM as the Orwellian tyrant? As I watched the half-hour political commercial that blanketed the networks, I thought: Hmm, it seems a giant screen before a mass audience is okay, as long as Obama is on the screen…

The “Obamercial” was a brilliant mash-up in its own right. Doing an infomercial alluded to the 30 minutes that John F. Kennedy purchased in the campaign of 1960. The style owed a lot to the Republican Party’s masterful adaptation of Hollywood techniques during the reign of its Hollywood president, Ronald Reagan, who also pioneered the technique of identifying and praising ordinary citizens. The Obama campaign raised this cliché to a baroque level of elaboration by weaving vignettes of struggling Americans among direct statements by Obama to the viewer.

Even the music struck me as sad rather than inspirational, more suited to a telethon raising relief money for victims of Katrina

And lots of struggling Americans, too. Poor John McCain. He is outnumbered as well as outspent. As his symbol of what used to be called the Forgotten Man, McCain has only Joe the Plumber. The Obama ad had, by my count, a wife with a disabled husband, a retiree cheated out of a corporate pension, an elderly couple facing high medical bills, a widow concerned with the education of her children, and a couple facing layoffs and cut-backs at a car factory.

Devoting so much of the infomercial to the stories of these average Americans and their challenges was a brilliant rhetorical move but a dangerous political one. The use of the vignettes accomplished two objectives. It allowed Obama’s talking-head moments to be limited, something that is essential in the age of 900 channels and limited attention spans. More important, it permitted Obama literally to put faces on the Americans he promised to fight for.

The irony of course is that not a single one of those faces belonged to the new constituency most identified with Obama. There were working-class moms and retirees, but not a single hip, wired, twenty-something Millennial. What has been billed as the unprecedented campaign of the young and the Internet closed with a commercial appealing to the classic Democratic base employing traditional rust-belt liberal themes and using the most advanced techniques of Reagan era cinematography.

Even so, the Obamercial created the same unease in this old-fashioned New Dealer that Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention did. In both I thought there was an overemphasis on Americans as pitiful victims in need of rescue from above, something that could be politically dangerous in a nation as optimistic and proud as our own, even in—especially in—a crisis.

The classic Obama speech includes a litany of victims—the laid-off worker, the mother who works two jobs, the retiree who can’t pay for medication. Even soldiers are potential victims; when they are individualized, it is not as heroes battling our nation’s enemies, but as sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, going into harm’s way. These hard-working victims of misfortune need to be rescued by a deus ex machina, in the form of an apparently nonpartisan presidential candidate with a lot of detailed plans.

In fairness to Senator Obama—President Pre-Elect Obama?—he did mention a few contemporary examples of success in America in his advertisement. He spoke about businesses and schools that were turned around, about hospitals computerizing their methods. But he only described them. Here I think the director and producers made a mistake. Those cases of successful American enterprise should have been shown, not just mentioned. As it was, the powerful images were of sadness and struggle and decline and despair and the instances of initiative and success were merely words.

Am I the only one who finds Obama’s vision of America a downer? Even the music in the infomercial struck me as sad rather than inspirational, more suited to a telethon raising relief money for victims of Katrina than a political revolution against the forces of reaction. Clinton had rock and roll’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” and FDR had “Happy Days are Here Again.” With all due respect to Sen. Obama, he is not a Happy Warrior in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, or for that matter Bill Clinton. His combination of policy wonkery and lugubrious tone remind me—I’m sorry, but I have to be honest—of Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry. I can imagine President Obama delivering a somber “malaise” speech but try as I might I can’t imagine him cheering up Americans as FDR did in the depths of the Depression.

It also troubles me a little that, in this unprecedented historical crisis, Obama chose not to use this opportunity to present a “theory of the case,” as they say in law. Except for a perfunctory reference to the financial crisis, the video could have been made and aired six months or a year ago. One would never guess, from the parade of hapless citizens whose problems are to be addressed by particular policy proposals, that the national and global economies have collapsed and that the conventional wisdom of the last generation of Democrats as well as Republicans has been discredited. By the time the third or fourth hardship case was paraded on screen, I found myself wishing that Obama would pull a Perot and show some charts and graphs. After all, if, as seems likely, he is elected, it will not be because Middle America is persuaded that he personally will reopen shuttered factories and give back pilfered pensions. It will be because Wall Street’s collapse erased John McCain’s lead and carried him down to defeat. President Obama should frame a plunging graph line on the wall of the Oval Office.

But the opinions that matter are not mine; they are those of the swing voters who, one must presume, were the targets of this skillfully made but less than inspiring infomercial. Let’s hope that the half-hour presentation worked and helped Senator Obama seal the deal and win the White House. The alternative is too depressing to contemplate.

Michael Lind is the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. and the author of The American Way of Strategy. He has been a staff writer or senior editor at The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The New Republic and The National Interest.