I’ve just watched one of Obama’s first campaign ads and an attack ad sponsored by the Senate Republicans. I’ll show how both fit into my four quadrant narrative framework, and speculate about whether each will work.
The Obama campaign ad is a one-minute distillation of the Obama campaign’s seventeen minute core video “The Road We’ve Travelled.” The ad starts with the calamitous economic situation before Obama took office – timing that was made very clear, and added that “some said our greatest days were behind us.” Since Obama took office, the ad tells us that “the auto industry is coming back, firing on all cylinders,” “America’s greatest enemy was brought to justice by her greatest heroes,” and 4.2 million jobs have been created. America is coming back. The ad concludes affirming that “you don’t quit and neither does he.”
There is an essential difference between this ad and “The Road We’ve Travelled.” The latter emphasizes the decisions Obama made such as bailing out the auto industry and authorizing the attack on bin Laden. This ad eschews presidential agency entirely, illustrated most clearly when it focuses on the Navy Seals who carried out the operation against bin Laden rather than the president who ordered it. Can we ascribe this narrative choice simply to avoidance of a complex message? Or do the ad’s creators assume that the audience need not be reminded of presidential decisions? I think there is another explanation: the ad’s creators chose to base their narrative on the mechanism of identification. The ad sets up a parallel between the struggling American middle class and the president who, with persistence and determination, is fighting on their behalf.
The “I’m fighting on your behalf” message failed miserably when adopted by Al Gore, but he was campaigning in what was perceived to be a prosperous time and could never make clear whom he was fighting against and why. But these are very different times and the nature of the struggle is much clearer. The ad thus represents the heroic public sector fable, juxtaposing national economic renewal with political renewal for a deserving president.
The Republican ad starts with the look and feel of an Obama campaign ad, so much so that it begins flashing a disclaimer that it was paid for by the Republican senatorial committee and was not authorized by President Obama. It starts by celebrating a president who brought us together, and then shows clips of Tea Party rallies. It then celebrates the end of dependence on American energy, and then shows a clip of Obama, together with former Brazilian President Lula Da Silva and current Brazilian President Dilma Roussef, expressing America’s desire to be involved in the development of Brazil’s offshore oil reserves. It juxtaposes the words “a president who will not rest” with photos of Obama golfing and fishing. And it proclaims “a president who consults with key decision makers,” and shows Obama together with Paul McCartney and his current sidemen but shows Obama saying he hasn’t had time to meet with the President of BP about the gulf oil spill. The ad then refers to the great challenges of a generation and shows Obama revealing which team he will support in the NCAA basketball finals. It concludes by contrasting Obama’s commitment to cut the deficit in half with Joe Biden stating that the government must spend more.
The ad comes across as satirical, but it introduces the themes that will be used in the more vitriolic attack ads that are sure to come. The first is hypocrisy, in that Obama promises one thing but ultimately does the opposite. The second is the corruption of celebrity, as Obama is seen enjoying golf, fishing, and basketball and schmoozing with entertainers.
Like the Democrat’s ad that elides the president as decision-maker, the Republican ad attacks Obama’s policies only tangentially, focusing its criticism on his personality. The implicit narrative is that of the lower left cell in the four quadrant narrative matrix. The country is suffering but Barack Obama is having a grand time enjoying the perks of being president.
Will this line of attack work? There are a variety of responses to the accusation of hypocrisy: it wasn’t Obama who chose disunity, but rather the Tea Party that chose discord; while energy self-sufficiency is a desirable goal, imports from friendly neighbours like Brazil (or Canada, for that matter) always help; and a temporary rise in the deficit is the consequence turning around the American economy.
I think there is widespread recognition, particularly in a republic that vests the offices of head of state and head of government in one person, that the president is a celebrity, and, to use Bill Clinton’s idiom of choice, necessarily “lives large.” Living large, however, does not necessarily mean living corruptly. Nor does it make it impossible for voters to identify with the president. I am, therefore, not convinced that Obama’s “living large,” at least as portrayed by the Republican Senatorial committee, will negate the feeling among voters that he understands, in a deep and emotional sense, their struggles. Furthermore, Obama has the advantage that Mitt Romney’s “Richie Rich” background and demeanour will lead many voters to conclude that he does not, even superficially, understand their struggles.
At this point in the campaign we are beginning to see how each side searches for the high ground and tries to push the other onto the low ground. Between now and November there will be a variety of events, in particular further indications of the performance of the American economy as well as the potential for an escalating economic crisis spreading from Europe, that will have great impact on the outcome. The challenge for each side will be how to integrate both pleasant and unpleasant surprises into its basic narrative.