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Critic's Notebook: Obama versus Pawlenty: Let the video war begin

April 7, 2011 | 10:27 am

The president is running for president, and on Monday he released a video on his website,, to get the ball rolling and the people talking.

Shot in the soft light and neutral tones of a Pottery Barn catalog, "It Begins with Us" begins as on a morning in America -- a farm, a church, a row of old brick houses, a flag. And then we meet Ed, from North Carolina: "It seems like the last couple of elections that we've had have been almost kind of turning-point campaigns," a tacit admission that 2010 was not a great year for Democrats. Later Ed says, "I don't agree with Obama on everything, but I respect him and I trust him," the sort of nobody's-perfect jujitsu move the president favors, if not always with success. Other supporters, in a range of ages and colors, also appear. There is Mike from New York -- too young to vote in 2008, but quietly fired up and ready to go -- and Katherine from Colorado and Gladys from Nevada and Alice from Michigan, who points out that the president is too busy "to come and get us all energized, so we better figure it out." It is devoid of policy, and almost of politics.

Like the man it is designed to help reelect, the spot is low-key almost to a fault. (Some would leave out the "almost.") On "The Daily Show," Jon Stewart described it thus: "They're all exhausted. How did we go from 'Yes, we can' to 'Well, whatever?' " This tone of moderation-in-all-things is exactly what exasperates many Obama supporters, and former supporters, and would-be supporters. But to be fair, although his every public utterance and performance may and will now be analyzed as a step the president has made either toward or away from reelection, this little film is addressed particularly to those who already like him. It doesn't play for votes but means only to stir the slumbering troops awake, to announce that it is spring in the election cycle and the time to sow is at hand. It's just a first alarm, the buzz you groggily silence to grab another few minutes of sleep.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, meanwhile, seized the  moment to release a video "response," entitled "A New Direction." While polls consistently put Pawlenty among the top contenders for the Republic nomination, he is still a dark horse. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from February had him losing the election to Obama by 19 percentage points, but the more significant number was the 61% of respondents who had never heard of him. And so, where the the Obama video is a tap on the shoulder, Pawlenty's grabs you by both arms, shakes you vigorously and head butts you for good measure. It is an attack on the incumbent, from first second to last, but it is also meant to say, "Hey, America, look at me."

The stylistic and temperamental opposite of the Obama video, "A New Direction" gets stranger the closer you look. Presented in a super-widescreen format, with a School of Zimmer soundtrack swelling and thundering along behind, it's been edited at breakneck speed, with constant movement within the frame as well -- it's hard to know what you're seeing sometimes, without freezing the picture -- and looks like nothing so much as the trailer for an apocalyptic action film, or the sort of subliminally charged footage used in spy movies as an aid to brainwashing.

The first image is beyond me to work out -- some sort of Golden Disc of Power, by the look of it. Then there are what seem to be lenses and lights, as Pawlenty, playing off a fuzzy Obama sound bite, asks "How can America win the future, when we're losing the present?" We get unmoored snippets of anxious speech (including a voice that sounds like Oprah's, saying "It's staggering"), ticking noises and thunder, with pictures that include, but are not limited to: clocks and counters, a crowd crossing a bridge in slow motion, lightning over -- striking? -- the White House, a flurry of shots of Obama (some significantly truncated, at least one upside down), a pair of street signs reading "Washington Street" and "Restricted Lane," people standing in line, and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman saying on television, "Washington has given up on the jobs bill" -- though he might have said "package"or "picture" or something else. The word is swallowed in a sound effect. (A self-described "unabashed defender of the welfare state" whose main issue with the stimulus package is that it wasn't big enough, Krugman is of course no friend to Pawlenty's politics, nor Pawlenty to his.)

Then there's Obama again, wearing a smile we're clearly to take as smug, and more people in line, and a woman holding a baby on a narrow way between old row houses, followed by a cryptic endgame: a sign for Interstate 94, which runs through Pawlenty's home state; two black women taking photographs; the American flag; and then Pawlenty himself, his face jumping into close-up in a burst of light and then back again. "For America to take a new direction," he says, "it's gonna take a new president."

And not just any old new president. "It Begins with Us" is meant to create just enough sense of uneasiness to inspire action -- "I'm kind of nervous about it," Gladys from Nevada says of the coming election. It is designed to throw you off balance, to make you reach out to steady yourself with the nearest thing at hand: hopefully the lever labeled "Pawlenty."

These are just the start. ("Sadly," I want to add -- Election 2012 is wearing me out just in the anticipation.) We are facing a year and a half of such commercials from more players than these, re-contextualizing, de-contextualizing the facts to fit the message. But advertising has no conscience of its own: For good or for ill, its job is to daze or dazzle you into a state of receptivity -- to reassure or to panic you, but primarily to mess with you. Perhaps they should come, these videos, with disclaimers: "May cause drowsiness, dizziness, confusion."

-- Robert Lloyd