The new Obama campaign video, “The Road We’ve Traveled,” is a compelling piece of political expression. It’s not art. It’s not news. It’s a form of effective political speech. The Obama campaign calls the video a documentary, and that it is: a documentary advocating a partisan position that is meant to rally supporters, and convince opponents and the undecided.
Partisan Republicans have criticized the video for being propaganda: a serious charge coming from people who often label President Obama, a moderate left of center Democrat, as a socialist, and speak ominously about the end of America as we have known it if the President were to be reelected. Mitt Romney, more lightly, perhaps in fact revealing that he is a moderate, dismissed the video as an infomercial. I understand the Republican objections. They see a political move and are trying to counter it by suggesting it should be dismissed and not watched.
Less understandable is the performance yesterday of CNN talk show host, Piers Morgan, who aggressively criticized Davis Guggenheim, the director of the film, for not balancing its advocacy with any criticisms of the President. This baffles me. Just because the video is the creation of an award winning filmmaker doesn’t mean that his political expression in this work should be measured by the same standards as his art. Guggenheim, as he tried to explain last night in his interview with Morgan, is politically committed and the work on the video is his way of being politically active.
When I go to the movies, read a novel or see an art exhibit, I think it is important to distinguished between art and politics. Works that have noble messages do not necessarily make fine art. As Malgorzata Bakalarz examined in her last post, there is a difference between good and politically important art. On the other hand, and this is central here, it is just as important to not mistake political expression with art, or with news. The Obama campaign and Guggenheim do not do this. They are advocating, something important in democratic life, attempting to convince, not manipulate.
If, indeed, “The Road We’ve Traveled” were presented as news with state funding, it would be correctly understood as propaganda. If it pretended that it was presenting unbiased information with private funding, instead of an argument with campaign funding, it would be accurate to describe it as an infomercial. Republican labeling “The Road We’ve Traveled” as propaganda and an infomercial is an attempt to turn the viewer away from the video, to not see it at all, or to not seriously consider the argument. As I said this is understandable, but it is also cynical, a move to dismiss an argument in order not to confront it.
I think the argument is compelling. It makes one major move, which I find quite convincing. It presents an overview of the accomplishments of Obama’s first term, drawing back from the messages of day-to-day political bickering and the calculations of who is up and who is down. Key achievements of the Obama administration in the voice of key members of the team and its supporters are presented. Adverting a financial collapse, saving the auto industry, health care reform, killing Osama bin Laden, withdrawal from the war in Iraq, restoring science to its rightful place, education and student loan reforms, consumer protection, ending “don’t ask don’t tell,” working to reduce foreign oil imports, passing legislation to insure equal pay for equal work for women, restoring the view of America and Americans in the eyes of the world. All of this is mentioned and explored, placed in the historical and comparative context. It is underscored that Obama took major risks in pursuing many of these policies, including his steadfastness not only in the operation against Bin Laden (this is a bit too gung ho for me), but also in the passing of the health care legislation. The video is artfully produced. I especially found the use of still black and white photos moving. It monumentalized decisions, highlighting the agency of Obama, when this is often lost in the noise of daily accounts. In sum, the video made a strong argument for achievement.
Of course, many will contest the argument. Partisan Republicans, true-believing conservatives, will not be convinced. But I think two groups may be moved by the video. Those to the left of Obama who have been dismissive of his presidency, who have accepted the story that he has not been resolute in supporting progressive causes. The video argues from the left from beginning to end (with the exception of the killing of Bin Laden). But I also think that the film appeals to the center and even to conservatives. It makes the argument for health care reform, an unbiased military, economic recovery and the rest in a way that appeals to common American sense.
The film expresses what I have long understood as Obama’s stance: in the center, attempting to move the center left. It’s power reveals that this is not only the project, promised by Barack Obama in the 2008 election. It is the achievement of the first term of the Obama Presidency, thus making a cogent and strong argument for re-election. It is the hope of the campaign that the video will go viral. If it does, it would reveal the way serious political argument still lives. “The Road We’ve Traveled” is not propaganda nor is it an infomercial. It is serious political argument in the age of the Internet.