A Positive Agenda, 2012 to 2022

During Spring cleaning, I recently came across a surprising artifact from ten years ago: a 20-page letter-sized mailer from Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

This is interesting to me for a number of reasons. I save campaign literature for a reference file, in recent years, but this was before all that and I completely forgot about it. I must have shoved it into the end of a shelf, for whatever reason, shortly after I moved into this apartment. It is quite a campaign piece. Well designed, but just big! Again, 20 pages! Whatever small fortune they spent on creative, and even printing, mailing these things was a bundle.

I think this is also an interesting historic artifact, already, and maybe a useful centerpiece for the latest in my usual musings on an unworkable political system.

Shortly before stumbling upon this brochure, I was thinking about how every election is now pitched by both parties as an emergency scramble to defend our values, our rights, our basic safety from destruction. This is intolerable, but among the various reasons that it continues nonetheless, what positive vision is there, these days?

Despite its title, “The New Economic Patriotism: A Plan for Jobs & Middle-Class Security” feels like the product of a well-established tradition, perhaps even a peak of the tradition’s refinement just before decadence and rot.

If you look, there are actually two or three Black people besides Obama visible in this 20 page brochure full of photos. But you have to look.

As a connoisseur and creator of campaign communications, this brochure really does feel like a tour of all the basics, all the standbys, packaged up so carefully that—ten years ago—it could stop just short of a feeling of cliché and self-parody prevailing. I mean every key word, again and again. Jobs, manufacturing, made in America, jobs, cut the deficit (ha remember when this still seemed like a credible cudgel for Republicans to wield?), small business, family, middle class, retirement, moving forward, jobs.

I can’t help imagining that, if historians examine this several centuries from now, they might pronounce it part of the last flowering of America’s Jobs-and-Hardhats Culture before it went into eclipse.

Not that the culture’s rituals or artifacts have ceased yet, by any means. But they aren’t working, and I’m not alone in recognizing this. It is interesting how (aside from the archaic deficit references) absolutely kitchen-table policy-focused the Obama brochure is. There’s really no trace of political anxieties. Nothing about voting rights, or courts; no invocation of sacred bipartisanship, or defensive claims of “getting things done.” I’m sure that some would say that’s simply smart campaigning, but from a broad cultural perspective, that seems more meaningful.

Even Obama’s direct successor, Joe Biden, pledged in 2020 to “restore the soul of America” and “prove democracy works.” I think Biden was by no means wrong, if he concluded that manufacturing jobs and fiscal responsibility didn’t even begin to cover the concerns of a majority coalition the same way that they might have done just eight years before.

I’m certain that Biden has no meaningful vision to take the place of the old vision of government as economic development facilitator, with mass economic empowerment through manufacturing jobs, and the market pretty much taking care of the rest.

But who does, and what could meet that lofty standard of meaningful in an America where so much of society is distrustful of some large portion of the rest?

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think on some level that quite a lot of us have stopped believing that working for reform within the existing system is going to accomplish much. Even if one imagines dispelling that cynicism through patient effort, in theory, you’re very likely to get only two years in practice and very unlikely to deliver enough tangible proof within that time.

“This bullshit is not cutting it.” Even virtuoso performances of the old magic rituals have failed to assemble any workable majority coalition willing to sustain trust in a long-term, shared project. Lesser attempts to replace vision with knockoffs or hot takes or scary stories are faring no better than they deserve to, and neither passionate nor policy-wonky progressive populism is faring much better. “Major factions of both parties feel [as much as ever] as if the victory of the other represents an existential risk to their way of life” and the many people disgusted with both factions are yet to come up with any constructive way to act on that.

Once again I’m reminded of Stokesbury’s history of World War I. Concluding his account of 1917 battlefield events, he wrote “The whole sickening horror had simply gone on too long. Yet it still had another year to run. … Until one side or the other acknowledged defeat and bowed to the will of the stronger, the war must continue. Indeed, in that sense, it did not even end in 1918; it lasted until 1945.”

I don’t know when America’s dysfunction may reach a real “breaking point,” but I would guess that it’s closer to 28 years away than one year away.

2 Thoughts on “A Positive Agenda, 2012 to 2022

  1. RE: “… the last flowering of America’s Jobs-and-Hardhats Culture before it went into eclipse.”

    I’m certainly no political historian, but I feel like Obama’s messaging — of which this brochure sounds like a pretty good example of — was already a decade out of date at the time. I’m speaking of the messages themselves; his was really the first presidential campaign to utilize 21st century technologies like texting. But I feel like his messaging followed in the footsteps of Bill Clinton’s, despite Republicans already having spent at least a decade focusing on blatant “it’s us or them” fear-mongering. I was, at the time, somewhat naively surprised when Bush II was casually throwing out his “Axis of Evil” statements and literally no one I heard ever commented on how nakedly cynical that phrase is, harkening back to the Nazis during WWII and expressly labeling them as ‘evil.’ Just to make sure there was no way you could mistake the allusion to Nazis in the first place.

    I think Obama’s success was more in spite of his messaging than because of it. Even the “kitchen table conversations” was a dated metaphor because no one was having those kinds of discussions any more. Between more households that no longer including a husband and wife, and being forced into working longer hours so couples were at home together less frequently, if those conversations happened at all, they would’ve been digital (texts, email, whatever) and more cursory in nature. “I’m at the BP — $4/gal !!!”

    The brochure strikes me as more vestigial, both in its form and its content. It was only a “last flowering” in the same way a plant might have been frozen in time in a blob of amber years earlier.

    Admittedly, I could well be viewing things more cynically from my 2022 perspective than might be warranted. His “Don’t boo! Vote!” line, which sounds like a precursor to almost the only thing you hear from Democrats today, wasn’t until 2016 so I might be projecting that Obama back farther than is warranted. But, again, from what I recall of Bush II’s campaigns, they had already changed the game back then.

    • Valid thoughts. It is difficult for me to judge because my own perspective has changed so completely since 2012.

      I look at the brochure, and see essentially the reasonable, genuinely conservative (as opposed to rabid fanatic) Republican which was already largely imaginary in the actual Republican Party by 2012. Here is the president of the United States setting out his platform in 20 full-size pages, and not quite being text-heavy but not skimping on words, either. And the message is mostly: government is here to make incremental improvements to healthcare, and education, and to manage your retirement pension, and you’ll take care of everything else with wages from your good job in domestic manufacturing industries. (There is not even mention of unions.)

      That just seems unimaginable to me, now. Even realizing that a campaign document is spin and marketing, much like e.g. tomb inscriptions from ancient Egypt, we still interpret what is and isn’t there. In this case, regardless of whether this outlook was still relevant to the real world in 2012—I would say not really—I see an artifact from a culture which still had a great faith that this artifact was worth producing.

      Yes, it’s an artifact of elite preoccupations, not of the popular zeitgeist as such. (It’s just astonishing how long Republicans got away with claiming fiscal rectitude and getting other elites to treat deficit reduction as a moral duty.) But I have come to accept that even when they are largely garbage, there are elites and their preoccupations have consequences, which might indeed be the definition of “the elite.”

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