Descartes taught us all “Cogito ergo sum” – I think, therefore I am.
The Obama campaign’s 17-minute reelection movie, which debuted Thursday night at more than 300 campaign-organized watch parties across the country, is a variation on the philosopher’s theme: I think, therefore I act, and therefore I am strong.
The movie is a case study in four-star defensive aggression, a visual sledgehammer pounding home one incessant theme: President Obama is stronger, much stronger, than you think.
Produced by Academy Award-winning director Davis Guggenheim, The Road We Have Traveled studiously captures Obama in dozens of still pictures wearing expressions of deep seriousness and contemplation. The photos also evoke the genuine loneliness of the job and occasionally render Obama as a leader facing grave choices with a look of prayerful supplication.
“How do we understand this president?” actor Tom Hanks, also an Academy Award winner, asks near the film’s beginning. The script urges viewers not to judge Obama by today’s headlines alone, but to weigh also “what we, as a country, have been through.”
In succession, the film leads its audience through Obama’s decision-making process on the economic stimulus bill, the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, health care reform, and the Navy Seal-team raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Laced throughout are the voices of those who once worked for Obama and, prominently, that of former President Clinton.
At one point, Clinton says the nation had “no earthly idea” what would have happened had Obama let GM and Chrysler fail, contending that the domino effect of job losses could have laid ruin to the Midwest middle class.
Even before bailing out the auto companies, the movie says Obama’s economic advisers were stunned during the transition to find out how deep the recession would be and how long it might last. Former White House adviser David Axelrod, now a top guru to the reelection campaign, says slides depicting the situation were like “a horror movie.” The news was so ominous, Axelrod jokingly suggests, he wanted a recount. Former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel puts in an appearance saying the biggest question during the transition was: “Which is first, which is second, which is third, which is fourth, which is fifth?”
The quote reinforces the underlying sentiment of the campaign documentary: Obama has confronted the toughest choices of any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Obama’s decisions throughout, Hanks smoothly intones, “reveal the character of the man.”
Work began on the film in December and the idea was conceived last fall, according to those close to the project. The film is designed to confront the impression that voters are not sure what Obama’s made of and have no real sense of how or why he’s made the big decisions of his presidency. Sources close to the project said this view of Obama surfaces regularly in campaign polling and focus groups. The film’s answer, in the context of a reelection campaign, is that Obama is not a politician, not a tactician, but a gutsy leader with a steely sense of purpose. What else, after all, would a reelection movie say about a sitting president?
With health care reform, Obama’s toughness is lionized even though that steadfastness fueled a voter backlash that led to huge Democratic loses in the 2010 midterm elections. Hanks’s voiceover says Obama faced “fierce opposition … hostile to compromise” over images of tea party rallies. With the bin Laden raid, Biden says he knew Obama was “all alone. If he was wrong, his presidency was done. Over”
The script calls the bin Laden decision “the ultimate test of leadership” and “a victory for our nation.”
Clinton, for his part, says he thought after the raid, “I hope that’s the call I would have made,” and called Obama’s decision in the face of inconclusive intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts “the harder and more honorable path.”
The film is a self-conscious effort by Obama’s closest friends to depict Obama as resolute and dependable. And that’s the conundrum for Obama’s team. If he is a strong and visionary leader, with such thoughtful depth and measured approach to big issues, why does the opposite perception persist? Second, is it risky to tell a story you assume voters have been too inattentive or too distracted to follow? If the times have been as tough as the film suggests – and it’s obvious they have been – why is it necessary to devote a 17-minute film to what ought to be a well-known story?
For those who love, admire, and revere Obama, the film will confirm all they believe. For those who have long ago given up on his promise of hope and change, it will look like an act of indulgent self-glorification, possibly unbecoming of the presidency.
But for those still on the fence about Obama, our times, and the choice ahead in November, the film asks them to consider the question: Has he kept the promises of his campaign? The film, of course, answers only in the affirmative: ending the Iraq war, repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” providing pay equity for women, and health care and financial-industry reform. It draws no attention to promises Obama’s failed to keep: repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, passing immigration reform, or cutting the deficit in half in his first term.
As for the work left undone, the film’s coda is, of course, hopeful: “Let’s remember how far we’ve come and look forward to work still to be done.” The most important work to be done is, of course, is what the film is meant to advance – Obama’s reelection. In this service, the film could only receive top billing at the White House.