President Obama’s slick new re-election documentary by director Davis Guggenheim is the talk of the campaign trail this week, offering up one of the biggest previews so far of what the Fall campaign will look like.
At only 17 minutes long and devoted to framing Obama’s first term in office (not spelling out his agenda for the next one), the campaign had to make some tough choices about which policies — and interest groups — they’d give starring roles and which ones would get a small cameo. Health care and the auto bailout got huge chunks of screen time, for example, while Obama’s Supreme Court picks received just a few seconds in the spotlight. We broke down how much attention each policy received relative to the others in this chart:
Reading the tea leaves, the film offers up some new insight on where the campaign might be heading as the general election draws closer with every passing Republican primary. Here are five things that leapt out to us.
1. Forget 2011 Ever Happened
The Obama campaign video wants you to remember exactly what it was like to be an American in the Fall of 2008, watching the entire financial industry collapse before your eyes in a matter of days. The Summer of 2011? Not so much.
The film notably leaves out virtually any mention of a huge and important chunk of the Obama presidency in which he fought newly elected Republicans over funding the government and raising the debt ceiling. And that’s not a given: an alternative universe Obama could just as easily be running on how he reduced the deficit through bipartisan agreements — in fact that’s what many progressives feared would happen last year. But as his poll numbers plummeted and it became clear the economy was still weaker than initially thought and required more help, Obama shook up his staff and went with a more populist focus. It’s clear from not only from the film, but Obama’s rousing economic speeches in recent weeks and his push to tax the wealthy in order to invest in infrastructure and education, that the White House is decisively emphasizing jobs over deficits.
“What they ignore is the period that Obama spent trying to satisfy the Republicans, trying to move towards deficit reduction instead of job creation, and that period where they were simply crossing their fingers and hoping the economy would get better faster,” Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign For America’s Future, told TPM. “The good news is the film emphasizes the president’s leadership in fighting a very, very serious recession and puts an emphasis on creating jobs and saving Detroit.”
2. The Auto Rescue Is The Re-Election Story
One thing we’ve seen in the last few months is that Obama’s re-election team is very comfortable talking about the auto rescue, which was initially an unpopular move back in 2009. The stimulus may have been a bigger ticket item and health care may have been Obama’s most historic piece of legislation, but the bailout is the easiest to explain, has the clearest results, and presents the best contrast with the eventual Republican nominee — especially if its Mitt Romney, whose “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” op-ed from 2008 is shown in the film. The message is simple: it may not have been easy, but Obama got the results he promised (and then some) while the other guys would have caved to political pressure and ruined an entire industry.
“It’s much more tangible as an example of progress that actually got people jobs and back to work,” Jeff Hauser, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO, told TPM. “The nature of the stimulus, when the most effective policy measures are things like supporting state and local governments so they don’t lay off employees, it’s not sexy and tangible. Whereas the fact there are cars being made in great quantity in America, the fact that it’s only because of Barack Obama, it’s at a scale that people can comprehend.”
3. Gays And Latinos, Stay Tuned For Second Term
The historic repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — which ingratiated the White House to the LGBT community last year — gets only a brief mention in the video, and the focus is on the military. That could be because the celebratory atmosphere at the end of DADT fight has given way to a bubbling feud between LGBT advocates and some in the Democratic Party over gay marriage. Same-sex marriage advocates have lined up high-profile support for putting a plank supporting gay marriage in the Democratic platform, but Obama still claims to be “evolving” on the issue even as many assume he’s stalling before announcing his support for marriage rights early in his second term.
DADT is still a big success for Obama, and the campaign has said lifting the ban on open homosexuality in the military will be part of their messaging to young voters. One activist group helping to get more LGBT politicians elected said they weren’t surprised by the brief mention of the big policy change in Obama’s video.
“Certainly we’ve heard this election time and again is about economic issues,” Denis Dison, communications director for the Victory Fund told TPM. “I would venture to guess that DADT is probably not going to be a major issue in the presidential election once we get past the primaries.”
Immigration reform was a major part of Obama’s 2008 campaign, and he promised to introduce an immigration reform bill in his first year as president. That didn’t happen. So maybe it’s no surprise that there wasn’t any mention of immigration in the campaign’s video.
Obama’s defenders have pointed out that the biggest issues for Latinos in polling are the economy and jobs, topics central to Obama’s documentary and his reelection bid. And other Latino advocates remind that thanks to a GOP field that seems hell-bent on alienating the Latino electorate. They expect Obama to make Latino outreach a major part of his campaign, despite the dearth of direct messaging in the documentary.
4. Health Care Everyone Can Agree On
Remember Health Care Reform? You might be surprised to note the Obama campaign hopes you do. Republicans love to run against Obama’s health care plan, but Obama’s video put his signature legislative achievement front and center. Kind of. Unmentioned is the national mandate at the root of Republican opposition — and the Constitutional challenge — to the law, or the subsidized exchanges that the GOP complains cost too much money. That won’t take effect until 2013, after Obama is sworn into his second term. So when talking about the first term, the campaign appears to be focused on the less controversial things in the law already underway: the ban on coverage discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, the requirement that children be able to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26, and closing the donut hole for seniors’ prescription drug coverage, among other things. Even Republican critics often try to assure votes they’ll keep some of these aspects.
5. …And Bin Laden Is Dead!
A lot of Democrats were angry when President Bush ran on the War on Terror in 2004, with many accusing him of politicizing national security for partisan gain. The Obama campaign has no hesitation about putting the Osama Bin Laden mission front and center in their own re-election message, however, which gets a detailed look in “The Road We’ve Traveled.”
Democrats, including Obama himself, have happily trotted out Bin Laden’s death any time the GOP presidential field accuses the White House of being weak on defense.
“Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top Al-Qaeda leaders who have been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement… or whoever’s left out there,” the president said in December when asked about Republican attacks.
Joe Biden has repeatedly suggested that the campaign’s re-election message should be “Osama bin Laden is dead. General Motors is alive.” Judging by the time each received in the film, it’s looking like the campaign will be printing bumper stickers of Biden’s quote in no time.