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Why Obama’s Campaign Film Won’t Reach Angry Voters

His campaign film stresses the president’s federal initiatives. That is its fatal error. By Lee Siegel.

“The Road We’ve Traveled,” the Obama presidential campaign’s new, 17-minute YouTube campaign pitch, is smoothly choreographed, understatedly powerful, even moving at times. And making it was a complete waste of time.

The film deftly illustrates all the right points. Obama saved the country by signing into law the Recovery Act, and his bailout of the Detroit automakers saved the jobs of hundreds of thousands of people while preserving an essential economic ballast. Whatever his weakness and unsteadiness in pushing for a health-care overhaul, what he got Americans in the end was a small miracle in the circumstances. Unlike bloviating Bush and Cheney, he rid the world of bin Laden, and he got us out of Iraq. He really does care about ordinary Americans, a sense of decency deeply rooted in his life, episodes of which are poignantly woven through the film.

You could bang your head against the wall if you imagine what a stronger, more experienced figure could have accomplished during Obama’s first year in office, but in the current context of Romney, Santorum and the unshakable others, Obama is the only practical hope the country has. Yet if “Road” is any indication, he is making the same mistakes in his campaign that he has made in his presidential tenure. He simply can’t get out of the elite liberal bubble that nurtured and created him.

A short while ago, I ran into someone who is close to Obama and his circle. I expressed astonished dismay at the fact that Obama waited 18 months to address the country from the Oval Office, allowing the Tea Party to be fomented and to gather strength all through that ugly summer of 2009, as health-care reform got hijacked by the lunatic right. Well, he said, the fact is studies have shown that Oval Office addresses to the country have no effect on a president’s popularity. I was stunned. The idea of flying in the face of irrelevant historical “studies,” daring to take a chance in that historically unique moment, and trying to win over the public never occurred to this canny and intelligent person. The experts ruled and caution had the last word. It was par for the course. Intellectual expertise justifying the most cautious approach is the (soft) spine of the liberal status quo.

“The Road We’ve Traveled” is the cautious approach. Instead of grabbing the conservative bull by the horns, it safely regurgitates Team Liberal platitudes about the rightness of Obama’s policies. It is not going to convince anyone to vote for Obama who hasn’t already decided to do so.

“Road” offers one obviously scripted moment after another of people from Obama’s inner circle, all wearing immaculate power suits—Goolsbee, Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel et al.—singing the president’s virtues. Although it does have those affecting moments from the president’s life—his mother’s death from cancer is one—it has the unintended consequence of turning the president into the star of a movie about everyday Americans. In other words, it reiterates Obama’s biggest liability: his effortless celebrity—a quality, to make things worse, he has always clearly relished.

The “we’ve” in the film’s title is clearly meant to encompass all Americans, yet it really refers to Obama and his cadre. The film wants to weave a narrative of national comeback, something most Americans yearn to be convinced by. But the movie’s fatal flaw is that it is not aware that there are two narratives of national comeback. One is that Obama rescued the country from the brink and is continuing to save it, month by month. But the other is the GOP’s narrative, in which Obama’s rescue consists of enlarging government at the expense of the little guy’s freedom. By stressing Obama’s federal initiatives at every turn, the film takes for granted the federal government’s benignity. That is a fatal error. It merely feeds the counternarrative, in which comeback is actually a taking-back of the country from Obama, the centralizing monster.

What the film should have done—and what Obama must do—is what Elizabeth Warren accomplished in her admirably incautious viral video. He has to bluntly make a case for government in people’s lives; he has to define, once and for all, the role government plays in Americans’ lives and has played for 80 years. At the very same time, he has to paint a picture of the near-apocalyptic consequences of right-wing solipsism.

But such a daring tack seems unlikely at this point. It would mean addressing your adversaries’ viewpoint by trying to see the world through their eyes, as unlovely an undertaking as that might be. It would mean not resting smugly on groupthink platitudes and an inherited sense of virtue—which would entail getting rid of the film’s director, Davis Guggenheim, the pampered liberal scion and slick, cynical Hollywood hack-turned-documentarian-to-the-political-stars who gave us the war on public-school teachers in the horrendous Waiting for Superman. Guggenheim, a pal of the president, is the very product of elite liberal insularity.

Really attacking the utter lunacy and moral impoverishment of the conservative hatred of big government would be quite a leap for this president. It would mean taking, as JFK’s favorite poet once put it, “the road less traveled” by most of the people around him and throwing caution and aloofness to the capricious winds. Are you up to that, Mr. President?