“Killed bin Laden. Saved GM.”
That’s a Dirty Harry–style slogan for Obama 2012—direct, unflinching, and unsentimental, no poetry or promises. It’s all about results. It can be remembered in a bar, and it fits on a bumper sticker.
Clint Eastwood’s Super Bowl ad for Chrysler likewise had everything an Obama 2012 promo could hope for—making the case for American resilience, arguing that we’ve overcome obstacles and divisions before, and always rediscovered the ability to come together to solve whatever problems we face.
With the icon of rugged individualism making a pitch heavy with perspective, by the end of the ad it wasn’t clear whether it was the Super Bowl at halftime or the Obama administration itself, about to begin its push for a second term. Karl Rove and Co. were quick to howl that the fix was in—this was payback for the Detroit bailout in front of a national audience on Super Bowl night.
No doubt Eastwood will soon emerge to tell us that the ad has been overanalyzed and willfully misunderstood by a bunch of liberals: it was about cars and America, damn it, not some politician asking for an extension of his four-year contract.
But the emotional effectiveness of the ad threw into sharp relief how ineffective the president’s team has been in making their case to date.
It is one of the biggest mysteries of the Obama administration: how a campaign whose communications were virtually flawless could end up so unfocused when they actually reached the Oval Office.
The Obama communications shop would no doubt make the case that campaigns are comparatively simple compared to the real-world responsibilities of the White House. Cry me a river. They might recycle Mario Cuomo’s great old line that you “campaign in poetry but govern in prose.” But that is an implicit admission that this president is more poetry than prose, having reached the office with more aspirations than experience, feeding into his opponents’ arguments that Obama is more talk than action.
Politics is perception, for better or worse. Narrative momentum matters—excuses don’t. The trick with policy is to communicate complex ideas in concise, common-sense terms. It’s something that academics are notoriously bad at—too many make a living ignoring the obvious. It’s a talent that any political leader—or his team—must have to connect with moderates and the middle class.
But it’s been fascinating in the past several weeks to see a narrative about the Obama administration’s accomplishments slowly, fitfully, take shape. Here are two examples, organically sprouting up online, instead of from the administration itself:
The first is from columnist Michael Kinsley, pushing back at liberal critics of President Obama, in this case while reviewing Thomas Frank’s new book, Pity the Billionaire.
“A Democratic president who gets us health care reform and tough new financial protection for consumers, who guides the economy through its roughest period in 80 years with moderate success (who could do better?), who ends our long war in Iraq and avenges the worst insult to our sovereignty since Pearl Harbor (as his Republican predecessor manifestly failed to do, despite a lot of noise and promises); a president who faced an opposition of really spectacular intransigence and downright meanness; a president who has the self-knowledge and wisdom about Washington … that president deserves a bit more credit from the left.”
Here’s the second, from The Onion, imagining a frustrated President Obama asking Americans why he ought to even bother running for a second term.
“You can help 40 million Americans receive health care, sign legislation that regulates a financial system run amok, give the order to kill Osama bin Laden, help topple Muammar Qaddafi’s tyrannical regime without losing the life of one American soldier, end the war in Iraq, repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, stave off a second Great Depression, take out more than 30 top al-Qaeda leaders, and somehow everyone still calls you the next Jimmy Carter.”
I love the unintentional echoes between these two paragraphs—one real and the other satirical—both capturing the frustration at the way hyper-partisan spin has been able to eclipse reality-based debates in our current political culture. This is a sign of the schizophrenia of our times. Many conservatives are convinced that President Obama is a socialist. Some liberals think he’s a Wall Street sell-out. You can’t be both. But there the president is, stuck in the absurd rhetorical crossfire, seemingly unable to define the terms of the debate, even with the power of the bully pulpit.
In some ways the problem is bigger than President Obama. When the next Republican assumes the Oval Office, whether in four years or eight, he or she will find that the political culture is set up to destroy rather than build. Unifying the nation absent an urgent crisis is increasingly difficult, if not impossible. The organized activist class from your own party will not tolerate dissension from ideological purity, even in the face of real-world responsibilities. The opposition will have been conditioned to reflexively attack, demonizing the duly elected president almost regardless of what policies he proposes. This cannot be good for the country.
It is in the face of these winds that President Obama aims to be the second Democrat reelected since FDR. But when a rationale for reelection is still being developed in an election year—and expressed more effectively by people outside the campaign—you’ve got a problem. Persona likability, chaos in the GOP field, and an improving economy all help, but most folks feel it is still far from morning in America—and arguments that range from “it could have been worse” to “I’m better than the other guy” offer cold comfort, the prospect of a default victory by a campaign that plays defense.
The alternative is to play offense—always a good idea in politics as well as sports. Academics don’t always understand, but Clint Eastwood does—say it simple and say it strong: “Killed bin Laden. Saved GM.” And sound more like Clint Eastwood; less like a professor-turned-preacher.