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Old White Men and Dreamcatcher Earrings: Decoding Obama's First 2012 Campaign Ad

President Obama's first re-election campaign commercial for 2012 appears to have been shot entirely in code, the interpretation of which is up to the viewer. The spot says literally nothing about the president's policies, his record, or what he wants to achieve with a second term -- the three criteria voters are actually judging him on. Nonetheless, the commercial speaks volumes to anyone willing to spend a few minutes puzzling through its truisms and koans:

The ad isn't specifically intended to sway voters. Rather, it appears to be targeted at those who might want to campaign for the president in the 19 months before next year's November poll (yes, that's how far out Obama is thinking). It consists of half a dozen or so Obama supporters talking quietly about why they will support their president for another four years, but the spot is difficult to describe beyond that because none of them say anything specific enough to be paraphrased in any meaningful way. Here's an example, from Katherine of Colorado:

I had this perception that politics was all show, it was all soundbites, but politics is how we govern ourselves. That's what politics is.
It's true! Politics is how we govern ourselves! You can check that for yourself here.

The real meaning of the ad, therefore, appears to reside in the various subtexts and choices that the Obama campaign has made in its construction. It begins with Ed from North Carolina who looks and sounds like the type of middle-American older white male who would be a Tea Party supporter:

I can't not be involved. There is too much that is fundamentally important now, that is going on.
This, also, is true but it's a shame that the campaign doesn't have the cojones to say it outright: America is split between those who believe the president is a foreigner running an unconstitutional administration bent on bankrupting the country through socialism, and those who believe that the president is a smart guy who saved the U.S. from what could have been its second Great Depression. Ed is alluding to that, but if he can't come out and say it he may never energize the Democratic base Obama actually needs to ring doorbells.

Following Ed, the commercial carefully hits all the "right" demographics. They include a Latina in Nevada talking about her desire for jobs for her family, a teenage New Yorker who admits that in the last election "I couldn't exactly vote at the time," a fast-talking black woman from Michigan and Colorado's Katherine, who appears to be wearing dreamcatcher earrings (on a closer look they aren't, but producers ought to pay attention to these type of appearances).

These are all things that Republicans will hoot at, but they're also the people Democrats actually need to vote: The demographic tide is turning away from the whites who form the GOP base and toward the minorities that Obama's ad highlights. Although Obama's popularity has declined, Republicans still need to find about 100 electoral college votes to oust him from the White House. So this isn't window dressing -- it's a serious appeal to non-white voters.

Put together those two dynamics -- that the next election is "fundamentally important" and a demographic shift away from the Republican base -- and you have the Obama's real message to his troops: It's us (the quietly reasonable, rational ones) vs. them (the old, pitchfork-carrying Caucasians).


Photo by Flickr user Jon Person, CC 2.0.
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