Hope and Continuity

What Obama’s re-election kickoff says about the campaign he’ll run.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
President Barack Obama

Barack Obama launched his 2008 reunion tour today. Technically it’s called a re-election, but the themes and images of the Obama 2012 campaign so thoroughly echo the last one, people might be excused for calling him Senator.

There are no images of the sitting president in the video. He appears briefly in two shots—both from the 2008 campaign. The video gives you a clear window into the Obama strategy. It is dominated by voters largely from swing states (Nevada, Colorado, and North Carolina) and largely female. They talk about the president and the next campaign in the loosest of terms. Their faces map to the Obama coalition—black, Latino, young.

This is the difference between being an incumbent and a challenger. Tim Pawlenty, for example, who wants people to be able to envision him as president, makes himself the star of a video. The images match the Hollywood version of what a president might look like. (Showing that he’s the quick draw in the campaign, Pawlenty responded to Obama’s video with another ad that felt like it should end with “In Theaters Soon.”)

President Obama, in his email to supporters, uses the difference in images to create a distinction with his potential opponents. “The politics we believe in does not start with expensive TV ads or extravaganzas,” he says. Since the other campaigns are likely to start that way—his did in 2008—the president suggests that if you see any of that stuff, you shouldn’t believe in it.

The release of the video marks the official kickoff of the fundraising season. The president will file papers with the Federal Election Commission and can now start raising money. If you click on the link that comes with the video, you are directed to a list of fundraisers taking place across the country.

The Obama video gets the values questions out of the way immediately. First image: a farm. Second: a church. Third: an American flag. It is so heavy on regular people because it is an organizing tool. In order to build a grassroots campaign, the president and his team have to re-create the sense of movement that was so effective last time. The message is not change, as it was in 2008, but continuity—help the president finish the change they sent him to Washington to make. In a direct message to supporters, the president writes, “we’ve got more work to do.”

The problem this time is that the candidate isn’t a screen onto which people can imprint their hopes. He’s got an actual record. (Update, April 4, 1:44 p.m.: As if to herald this fact, on the day the president announced his re-election bid, his administration announced it would try Khalid Sheikh Mohammad at Guantanamo Bay, which Obama the candidate had promised to close.)

Some former and future voters may not agree with Obama on every issue. To help those voters get to yes, we are presented with Ed from North Carolina. “I don’t like everything he’s done,” says the fiftysomething fellow in a sensible blue oxford shirt, “but I respect him, and I trust him.” If similar voters who took a chance on Obama last time are out there, Ed wants you to know that the stakes are too high to let your mild disappointments keep you from working to re-elect the president. If you’re not going to work for Obama, at least vote for him.

Another message: You’re going to have to build it without him. The president doesn’t have the time to campaign the way a challenger does. He also doesn’t want to. In the Obama team’s perfect world, the president would stay above the campaign fray, look reasonable and nonpartisan to independent voters, and yet somehow all of this detachment and negative energy would send his core supporters into wild fits of organization.  “Unfortunately, President Obama is one person,” says Alice in Michigan. “He’s got a job. … We’re paying him to do a job, so we can’t just say, ‘Hey, could you just take some time and come and get us all energized?’ So we better figure it out.” Alice, like Gladys in Nevada, is determined not to leave the re-election up to chance or the power of incumbency. (In a really perfect world, the opposition would be simultaneously fighting off charges of extremism.)

There is no talk in the video of health care or stimulus or any of these icky wars. The weather is good, and the fruit bowl on the kitchen table is full and its contents are ripe. In 2008, Sen. Obama told his supporters, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” They still are.

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