Barack Obama branded his 2012 campaign kickoff speech Saturday in Ohio a “Ready to Go Rally.” For the uninitiated, this is a reference to something that happened five years ago in Greenwood, South Carolina. A retired nurse named Edith S. Childs began an unprompted chant that interrupted then-candidate Obama. “Fired up, Ready to Go,” she repeated, coining one of the 2008 campaign’s key slogans, which was relegated to the historical dustbin after Obama won the White House. Until now, that is. “Fired up, Ready To Go,” is back. So is “hope.” So is “change.” In fact, as the President cast the central thesis of the coming campaign, he made clear that he was not about to leave the past behind. “We have to move forward to the future we imagined in 2008,” he said.
Nostalgia, it must be said, is having quite a run in Western politics. With the unsatisfactory present and the uncertain future, the voting public naturally looks to the past to envision the future. A recent Associated Press report from Paris summed up the presidential election there as “a race of negative emotion and nostalgia for a more protected past.” That dynamic, of course, turned out the incumbent president Nicholas Sarkozy over the weekend, and advisers to Obama’s main rival Mitt Romney are counting on the same thing to happen in November in the United States. Romney’s own campaign kickoff speech—arguably the second most important speech of any presidential campaign, next to the convention address—was filled with longing for the past, a time when Americans knew that if they “played by the rules, worked hard, that they would have the chance to build a good life, with steady work and always that possibility to work a little harder and get ahead.”
“And in that America, you don’t wonder if your children will have a better life,” Romney continued. “You know they will. You know it the same way we know that tomorrow morning the sun is going to come up in the East right over this field.” The Obama campaign’s strategists have struck back at this messaging hard, charging that what Romney really wants to “go back to the future,” by which they mean a return to the general dismay of the late 2000s under George W. Bush.
But given the country’s mood—and despite the Obama campaign’s own slogan “Forward”–the Obama campaign is not willing to give up on nostalgia. As Obama made clear on Saturday, it will be a driving force of his own campaign. “If people ask you what this campaign is about, you tell them it is still about hope,” Obama told the non-sellout crowd in Ohio. “You tell them it’s still about change.”
And so the campaign has been framed. The question is not whether the 2012 election will be a nostalgic campaign, but which nostalgia will prevail. Will it be Romney’s vision of a pre-Obama, pre-recession, post-World War II prosperity, when the United States ruled as the uncontested driver of economic growth and military might? Or will it be Obama’s own nostalgia for 2008, when large parts of the country were united around the idea that a new guy with a funny name could lead the country to a better and brighter future?
With this as the choice, voters should be wary. As Marcel Proust once warned, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” As many Americans are now all too aware, the hope and promise of Obama’s own 2008 campaign was almost certainly oversold by the President’s campaign. Even the most person in the world can seem small when faced with the dysfunction of the American governing system and the mercurial visciousness of the global economy. Likewise, Romney’s central claim—that his business background would have given the United States a better economy over the past three years and returned the nation to its greatness of days past—must be viewed with some significant skepticism. There simply is no large developed country in the world that has weathered this financial crises without significant pain. And Romney’s charge that Obama made the recession worse has yet to be fleshed out as anything more than a rhetorical dagger.
But given the nation’s uneasy mood, Obama is likely to have a harder time juggling a nostalgic election than Romney, for reasons he knows all to well. The President’s rise to national political prominence, marked by his 2004 convention speech calling for the comity of yesteryear, and a 2008 convention speech calling for a return to prosperity, pushed many of the same levers that Romney is now leaning upon. That is because nostalgia is a rebellion against the present, and inherently favors the outsider. In 2008, Obama was able to talk with authority about “that promise that has always set this country apart – that through hard work and sacrifice, each of us can pursue our individual dreams but still come together as one American family, to ensure that the next generation can pursue their dreams as well.” Now he must also explain why the promise has not been so evident in recent years.
Just take a look at the nostalgic video that the Obama campaign used to introduce the President on Saturday.
It’s an inspiring piece, filled with hope, and inter-cut with scenes from 2008 and 2012. It ends with Obama’s voice commanding, “Now let’s go change the world.” That is the war cry of the outsider. It remains unclear how it will perform for a man who has been running the country for the past four years.