Obama in 2012: Politics as Usual
“We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries–we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nations’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?” – Pale King, David Foster Wallace
Early last week, President Obama released a video on his website announcing his bid for reelection in 2012. If you haven’t yet, take a moment to watch the video below.
Almost immediately, I began to wonder: 1. Why does this feel so weird? and 2. What, if anything, did Obama do differently in 2008?
The short answer is Obama’s political rhetoric has shifted from instilling an ethic through hard work to glorifying the pose of the everyday ideal American. Put simply: Obama has shifted from substance to symbolism.
Click on for the long answer.
The video opens with familiar scenes of middle America: a picturesque farm, dormant in winter; an unadorned church; a peaceful row of single-family homes; a closeup of an American flag. These are the images that represent the everyday life of the ideal American. The scenes are shot in winter, empty of life, with a feeling that spring is coming and soon there will be work to do. Finally, the camera focuses in on an American flag and we are introduced to five regular Americans who seem eager to get started.
The five are of predictably diverse gender, age, and ethnicity, but surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, depending on your level of cynicism) similar economic backgrounds. They are all upper middle class, educated, and well-fed. And they are presented here as five examples of model Americans.
But, before taking a closer look at these model Americans, I want to take a moment to recall how Obama kicked off his 2008 campaign because I think it clearly delineates Obama’s movement from substance to symbolism. The video, released on February 9th, 2007, is nothing more than a camera and a slightly nervous Obama delivering a brief message about the hard road ahead. (Incidentally, this is a great example of the awkward beginnings of social media as a political tool. Notice how he begins with “hi” and ends with “bye bye”–even Obama’s awkwardness is charming.)
The following day, on February 10th, 2007, Barack Obama delivered a speech on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, IL expanding upon the message laid out in his YouTube video. The speech was remarkable because Obama called Americans to work: “Let us begin this hard work together. Let us transform this nation.” He doesn’t congratulate; he challenges us to be better. He reminds us that, contrary to political rhetoric since Reagan, America is not great simply because it is America (see: McCain’s campaign announcement from 2007: “Greatness is America’s destiny”).
At bottom, Obama is employing the old “we’ve lost our way” trope, but here it sounds fresh because it rings true for anyone born after 1970 who grew up hearing stories of the New Deal, World War II, the Great Society, and the Apollo missions. While those accomplishments were great, they are not evidence, they are only myths. At best, these myths can provide a blueprint for greatness by encouraging collective action. So when we hear stories of World War II and the way the country came together to fight a great evil, the lesson is not that America is awesome. Rather, the lesson is that by working together, we are stronger and we are capable of great things.
In 2008, for the first time in many voters’ lives, while other candidates spoke of destiny, Obama reminded us that “engaged citizens working together can accomplish extraordinary things.” Great things don’t just appear out of thin air. Obama wasn’t offering us a myth; he was offering us a chance at greatness.
So what happened?
Here we meet Mike in his dorm room in New York. Mike wasn’t old enough to vote in the 2008 election, but he is really looking forward to voting in the upcoming presidential election. Why is he voting for Obama? Mike doesn’t say, but his deliberately designed dorm room gives us some clues. We see all the accoutrements of the ideal American boy: a large flatscreen television, multiple video game systems, a stack of DVDs, friends, vinyl records, not a single book, and one gently used Foreign Affairs magazine. It’s the sort of scene that causes you to take stock of your own room and hope that your things don’t look quite so carefully placed.
More than any of the other four Americans profiled in the video, as a young college student, Mike seemed to be the one slam dunk Obama voter. But then I noticed a blurry poster in the background that looked a lot like a poster from Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity. And then it dawned on me, he has the poster on his wall, but he most likely didn’t go to the rally. Likewise, he has vinyl records, but no record player to play them. He says he’s voting Obama, but voting statistics say he probably won’t. Of course, Mike is excited to talk about voting for Obama because, by supporting Obama, it marks him as a certain type of person with a certain type of ethic (just as people like Mike probably enjoy watching The Daily Show and listening to Arcade Fire on vinyl). Obama, for Mike, is merely a pose with little conviction behind it. Indeed, one looks at Mike and forgets for a moment that there are three wars being fought; that there is record unemployment; that the country is literally crumbling around him. Whereas in 2008, Obama called upon the youth to rise up and make this nation great again, here Obama is saying “hey, people who are cool vote for Obama.”
Most significantly, however, what’s missing is the hard work Obama espoused in his first campaign. The idea that “each of us, in our own lives, will have to accept responsibility – for instilling an ethic of achievement in our children.”
Which brings us to Gladys.
If there is one thing not happening in these carefully constructed scenes, it’s “instilling an ethic of achievement in our children.” Instead we see the mother doing the talking, the father making dinner, and the children playing. Assuming these were perfectly crafted scenes meant to impart a particular ideal American family scene, the creators of the video have gone out of their way to ensure that no actual work is ever shown on screen. Why else would the son be playing a Nintendo DS whenever he’s on screen? (Incidentally, I have no idea why they decided to use a pink DS)
But even while the parents handle the domestic labor, there is still no sense that Obama is calling upon them to contribute anything other than a vote. Instead of hard work and sacrifice, we see overflowing bowls of overripe fruit; we see bottled water; we see a family acting as if everything is fine.
Like we saw with Mike, the implicit assumption is that America is a pretty cool place with very few pressing issues–and we need not sacrifice anything to keep it that way. Instead of sacrifice, the video offers us a choose-your-own-adventure of five different ideal American lives, only the choices are all the same and the adventure is as simple as casting a vote for Obama.
Obama told us in 2008 that voting wasn’t enough, that the bar for civic engagement needed to be much higher. Greatness wasn’t our destiny, it was our goal. A goal that could only be achieved through collective action.
Today, Obama asks a simple question: “Are you in?”
All he’s asking for is a yes.