Obama’s Campaign Documentary: Gloom You Can Believe In

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A still from Obama's campaign documentary, 'The Road We've Traveled.'

“What do we remember in November of 2008?” asks Tom Hanks in the opening narration of Davis Guggenheim’s new Barackumentary, a 17-minute paean to President Obama paid for and distributed by his reelection campaign. “Was it this?” Hanks continues as triumphant slo-mo footage of Obama’s Election Night debut in Grant Park rolls onscreen. “Or this?”: a lowlight reel of the economic crash punctuated by images of despondent Wall Street traders. “How do we understand this President and his time in office? Do we look at the day’s headlines? Or do we remember as a country what we’ve been through.” Guggenheim, and Obama’s political advisers, clearly want voters to remember the latter.


The still photographs, spliced throughout the movie Ken Burns style, are not of a smiling, hopeful President. They show Obama in sober contemplation, chin in hand or finger over mouth. The adoring crowds from Grant Park make no second cameo until the last seconds of the film, but during the health reform section, Guggenheim shows Tea Party armies marching on the Capitol and an incensed senior saying “it’ll be a cold day in hell before he socializes my country.”

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Economic gloom dominates the first half of the film. David Axelrod calls an economic presentation during the presidential transition “a horror movie.” Austan Goolsbee declares the  period before Obama took office “the worst six months ever,” and the documentary employs the jobs chart, long favored by the Administration, that shows the nadir of job losses in January of ’09, with the preceding Bush months in red and the following Obama months in blue. Even when touting the accomplishments of the stimulus, there are few positive metrics. Hanks says Obama is “restoring the possibility of growth,” not that he already has.

Guggenheim brings in Elizabeth Warren and Bill Clinton, arguably Democrats’ most effective messengers, not to flatter Obama, but to make the counterfactual argument, always a tough sell, that things could have been much, much worse. “People have no earthly idea what would’ve happened,” an animated Clinton says of the decision to bail out auto companies.

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Amazingly, the section on health care reform, Obama’s hallmark legislative achievement, is every bit as bleak. Guggenheim does not focus on popular portions of the law like banning insurance companies from charging customers based on pre-existing conditions, though that’s briefly mentioned later. Instead, it frames the legislation as an effort to address rising health care costs that are “crushing family budgets and choking business.” The Affordable Care Act included pilot programs that will eventually try to mitigate rising cost, but the law is much more focused on expanding coverage. Again, the film focuses more on problem than solution.

There are moments when that old-time Hope peeks through. Guggenheim clips Obama’s speech celebrating the success of the auto industry in which he said, “We are coming back,” a message fraught with its own political risks. About 10 minutes in, when the film turns to foreign policy, the tone lightens a bit, heralding troop withdrawals from Iraq and the killing of Osama bin Laden. But even there, Guggenheim hits dark notes: “He’s all alone,” Joe Biden says of Obama’s decision to go after bin Laden. “This is his decision. If he was wrong, his presidency is done,” a particularly imaginative stretch.

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The last four minutes of the film are what you might have expected from the beginning: swelling music, the accomplishment check list, smiling faces. Hanks wraps it back to beginning. “Let’s remember how far we’ve come,” he says in the closing lines of the film, “and look forward to the work still to be done.”  But the burden of Obama’s reelection message is not to tell people how good they have it. Americans clearly don’t feel that way, even with an improving job market. His task, if The Road We’ve Traveled is any indication, begins with reminding people how miserable they were in hopes that they look more favorably on how things are now.