President Barack Obama’s 17-minute video, “The Road We’ve Traveled,” gives us an idea of how he wants to frame the issues in the fall election.
The first thing you notice about the video is that the atmosphere is dark, wintry, minor key. You see but don’t hear the election night crowd in Grant Park, and then the video switches to graphics about the economic meltdown that followed the financial crisis of 2008.
There are gloomy scenes throughout. Obama’s economic advisers arrive in a bleak Chicago after a snowstorm. The president is shown in the Oval Office through a window at night.
The visuals are oddly antique for a president who promised hope and change. When narrator Tom Hanks talks of the “middle class,” we see downscale neighborhoods with houses built in the 1910s or 1920s. When he talks about economic recovery, we see an early 1950s Ford coming off the assembly line.
Hanks strikes another historical note. “Not since the days of Franklin Roosevelt has so much fallen on the shoulders of one president.” Well, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan might disagree, but one gets the idea. If America is not standing tall, it’s because Obama started off nearly 6 feet under.
We hear a lot about the burdens of office and the loneliness of presidential decision-making. The same point was made in 30- and 60-second ads run by Jimmy Carter’s re-election campaign in 1980.
Those spots featured only Carter and the narrator speaking. The 17-minute video has time for testimony from Joe Biden, Bill Clinton and, briefly, Michelle Obama.
The resemblance to the Carter ads is ominous, seeing as Carter lost 51- 41 percent in November. Americans want to think well of their presidents, but sometimes they decide they’ve had enough.
Republicans and political reporters will find much to quibble with in “The Road We’ve Traveled.” There are misstatements of facts, and issues are framed in ways that are arguably misleading. The Washington Post’s fact checker has given the video three of a possible four Pinocchios for the Obamas’ description of his mother’s insurance situation in her final illness.
On issues, we don’t hear the words “stimulus package”; there is just a brief reference to the otherwise unidentified Recovery Act. Much more is made of the GM and Chrysler bailouts, which Biden says — some Pinocchios due here — exacted sacrifices from the United Auto Workers.
There is also much more — more than there was in January’s State of the Union — on health care. We hear a list of promised benefits — keeping adult children on parents’ insurance, banning refusals to insure for pre-existing conditions — which so far have failed to make most Americans love the law.
We hear little about foreign policy except for the withdrawal from Iraq, with some attractive footage of soldiers returning home and praise from Clinton and Biden for ordering the SEALs to kill Osama bin Laden.
There are the predictable shoutouts (liberals call them dog whistles) to Democratic constituency groups — feminists, gay rights supporters, seculars, fans of green energy.
Altogether, this seems more like an attempt to shore up the Democratic base than it does an attempt to win over independents, who, polls indicate, are skeptical about many claims made in the video. Its main message is what I heard from Democratic voters I encountered on the primary trail: Things were really bad when he got in, and he needs another term to straighten them out.
For a contrast, look at the 1984 Reagan campaign’s “Morning in America” ad. The narrator, ad man Hal Riney, has a soothing voice like Hanks’, but his message is vastly more upbeat. America is “prouder and stronger and better,” he proclaims, because of the policies of President Reagan.
You see more flags than you do in the Obama video, more smiles, couples at the altar. It looks like springtime and is filled with light.
“Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?” Riney asks. Which surely reminded viewers of the question Ronald Reagan posed in his only debate with Jimmy Carter: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
Reagan stole the line from the master, Franklin Roosevelt, who, in a fireside chat before the 1934 off-year elections, asked, “Are you better off than you were last year?” But that was 46 years earlier, and no one remembered.
It’s a question that the Obama campaign dares not ask.