Barack Obama’s half-hour infomercial Wednesday night didn’t teach us a lot we didn’t already know—except that an Obama administration would likely
feature immaculate stagecraft.
The spot opened with a shot of—I’m not making this up—amber waves of grain. Obama reiterated his plan to cut taxes for families making less than $250,000 in a softly lit room in front of an oak desk. He explained his Social Security plan to moist-eyed retirees in what could have been a church vestibule. Then a guy behind a register tells Mark Dowell, a laid-off auto worker, the price for groceries. The camera cut to Dowell, scowling, in a way that could not have possibly been live. Not to mention the well-coordinated switch to Obama’s live address in Florida, with sweeping cameras straight out of a Rolling Stones concert movie.
Improved artifice easily fits under the banner of “Change.” Some of President Bush’s worst political moments came from poorly executed stagecraft. Dressing up as a fighter pilot and standing before a “Mission Accomplished” banner was the epitome of tone deafness. Bush’s team also goofed in allowing him to be photographed looking down at post-Katrina New Orleans. Optics aren’t everything, but Bush’s visual flops were especially damaging.
And it’s not just choreography that matters: It’s making the choreography look effortless. Tonight’s episode featured all sorts of shots that simply had to be rehearsed: a couple praying before dinner, a mother walking out of a grocery store toward a fixed camera, a woman with arthritis massaging her knuckles. You can imagine the cinematographer saying, “Can you pray a little longer this time? OK, now try moving your mouth a little.” It’s heavily choreographed. But the production quality is high enough that the transitions are almost invisible. It’s the opposite of George H.W. Bush’s famously clunky statement to the people of New Hampshire in 1992: ” Message: I care .” The trick is not to let the seams show.
Smart propaganda does not a smart administration make. If anything, it means we have to be more vigilant in calling out theater when we see it. But whatever the next four years may bring, we’re in for some damn good camera angles.