Finally, the Barack Obama re-election campaign has unveiled its new slogan. For months, the media had asked what the theme for the campaign would be. In 2008, Obama used "Change," and sometimes "Hope and Change," a clear definition of his candidacy as the antithesis to eight years of George W. Bush. While Obama had definite positions on issues, the main selling point was that he wasn't Bush, and any Republican candidate would be a repeat of the unpopular, retiring GOP president.
This time around, Obama chose "Forward." In January 2011, Obama tried using "Winning the Future," which the White House rolled out with his State of the Union speech, only to discover that Newt Gingrich had written a book with that title a few years earlier. Plus, the acronym "WTF" matched up with texting slang that didn't exactly spell out a winning message. "Forward" might not have been much more original, since MSNBC has used "Lean Forward" as its theme for the past 18 months. At least Obama didn't borrow this one from a Republican presidential candidate.
Obama isn't debating 2013 — he's debating 2011.
On Monday, the Obama re-election campaign rolled out a new video to go with its "Forward" theme. Oddly, though, the video didn't look forward at all. The first minute focused on the state of the nation in 2008, not 2012 or 2013. The next five minutes then walk through all of the accomplishments Obama has claimed for the three-plus years he's been in office. Incumbents have to make those cases, of course, when running for another term, but the Obama campaign spent the last pre-"Forward" year talking about nothing else. The only hint of a forward look comes in the final 45 seconds or so of the video, when Obama talks ambiguously about maintaining his momentum in a second term.
Nor was "Forward" the only retrospective on display from Team Obama and the White House this week. The president and his team are eagerly celebrating the first anniversary of the Osama bin Laden mission. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have not shied from bragging that they "got" bin Laden, but last week they added a twist. Obama released a campaign ad — with the requisite "I'm Barack Obama, and I approved this message" — that strongly insinuated that Mitt Romney wouldn't have had the testicular fortitude to kill bin Laden. The ad created a firestorm of criticism that threatened to overshadow Obama's solid claim to success on the battlefield; even Arianna Huffington described the ad as "despicable." When the president went to Afghanistan Tuesday to deliver a speech, the political attack clouded the motives and timing behind the visit. At least Obama had learned enough to tone down the partisanship in the speech itself.
Even so, the moves from Obama and his political team had a surrealistic quality, made ironic with their choice of slogan. Despite proclaiming their theme as "Forward," all of their efforts went into looking backward. The Obama campaign picked a fight over whether Romney would have killed bin Laden a year ago, had he been president. Osama bin Laden has been dead a year, and likely will still be dead next year when either Obama or Romney will live in the White House. We're not debating 2013 — we're debating 2011.
In fact, Obama has yet to talk about why he wants a second term as president. What does Obama plan to do about the budget in 2013? Or 2016, for that matter? His budget proposal for FY2012 couldn't garner a single Democratic vote in the Senate last May, when Harry Reid finally had to call a floor vote. Obama's FY2013 proposal didn't get a single Democratic vote in the House last month. Some Democrats complained that the floor vote was a stunt, but it's still a fact that Senate Democrats have refused to bring it to the floor themselves, even though they haven't produced a budget resolution in over three years, despite their legal responsibility to do so. Given the stagnation that the U.S. has experienced, Obama's team wants to talk about anything else but the economy. His tax reform plan involves a "Buffett Rule" that will raise no more than $5 billion a year for a budget deficit of at least $900 billion in FY2013.
What about foreign policy? Obama has shied away from any substantive agendas, unlike in 2008, when he claimed he would meet America's enemies "without preconditions" and boost American prestige through "smart power." While Obama hasn't shared his vision of foreign policy in a second term with the American public, he seemed less reticent with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, in what he thought was a private moment. Telling Medvedev that he has more "flexibility" after the election, Obama assured the Russian president that the missile-defense issue could be "solved," if only Vladimir Putin would "give me space." What solution does Obama have for the missile-defense issue? Why hasn't Obama shared that with the nation as part of his agenda for a second term in office?
Obama hasn't bothered to articulate any specific agenda for a second term, giving no substantive, forward-looking argument for why anyone should vote for another four years. Instead of forward, Obama's campaign seems to be looking backward, and hoping voters feel nostalgic enough over the last three-plus years that they don't bother looking "forward" at all.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- The troubling persistence of eugenicist thought in modern America
- Libertarianism's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- Why the Chinese military is only a paper dragon
- Christian conservatives have a terrifying new bogeyman: The Christian leftist
- How the Simpsons/Family Guy crossover revealed the worst of both shows
- What the Romney boomlet says about the establishment GOP's feeble 2016 field
- How liberals are unwittingly paving the way for the legalization of adult incest
Subscribe to the Week