Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > “Hope and Change”: The “Comeback Kid” of Political Narratives?

Oct 1, 2012

“Hope and Change”: The “Comeback Kid” of Political Narratives?


Obama campaign graphic.

On the eve of the “great debate,” the presidential election narrative in the mass media is moving toward “Obama’s widening lead.” That may or may not be true, depending on how seriously you take the polling process. But in politics, as in so much of life, the story will trump the facts nearly every time.

If Obama is indeed widening his lead, the change is most evident in the battleground states, where voters are inundated with advertising, robocalls, and candidate appearances as portrayed on the TV news. Why are Obama’s numbers improving, slightly but steadily? Theories abound.

Here’s one that comes from a little fragment of (perhaps previously unreported?) history that I just stumbled across, reported by Howard Kurtz, The Daily Beast and Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief. (Isn’t it telling that a once-serious magazine, now turned into a pop tabloid, would hire a very talented media -- especially TV -- critic as its Washington bureau chief?)

It seems that Mike McCurry, who was White House spokesman for Bill Clinton, told Kurtz this story: 

In the summer of 1996, Clinton “had not crystallized his argument for reelection until he watched Dole deliver his acceptance speech,” which included the line “let me be the bridge to a time of tranquility, faith, and confidence in action.” In the hotel room, Clinton “slammed the desk and said, ‘No, that’s wrong. You’ve got to be a bridge to the future. That’s how I want to make my closing argument.’” “Obama is now building that argument,” Kurtz adds, speculating that this goes far to explain the September boost the president is getting in the polls.

There’s no way to prove it, of course. But we do know that Clinton is now up there in the pantheon of modern American political geniuses, alongside Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson. So his advice is always worth listening to. We also ought to know that Clinton’s famous piece of campaign advice from 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid," cannot, by itself, explain Obama’s standing in the polls.

So it’s worth considering the possibility that the Obama campaign’s focus on the future really has made a difference. The old slogan of “hope and change” has not been trotted out again. The media wrote its obituary long ago, so it would make too tempting a target for Republican scorn. But the idea is certainly there, front and center. Perhaps the “comeback kid” has revealed to the Obama campaign the secret of coming back from the brink of disaster.

When the campaign first settled on that one-word slogan, “Forward,” I laughed. It seemed not merely a sad cliché, but a flimsy one. Even less substance than “hope and change.” Who’s going to take it seriously, I wondered?

But as the contest has unfolded, a pattern is emerging. Romney, as the challenger, naturally focuses on what the incumbent has done wrong. Indeed the challenger has come in for some major criticism from media wonks like Kurtz because he has not been able to keep the media focus, or his own focus, on one simple message: Obama is ruining the economy.

But that still remains the best argument Romney can make. And it boils down to, “Voting for me is the only way to prevent disaster.” Romney would have us believe that Obama, the symbol of “big government” and “the crushing burden of federal debt,” is leading the invasion, destroying the tranquility that many voters imagine America enjoyed before the turmoil of “the ‘60s.” It’s not a message about making the future better but about preventing it from becoming much worse.

So Romney is following the script that we might expect from any presidential candidate. As Maureen Dowd once wrote, “Every election has the same narrative: Can the strong father protect the house from invaders?” 

That kind of frightening narrative -- contrasting the peril we face with the safety we crave -- has indeed dominated American politics for a very long time (since the 1930s, I would argue.) Through this spring and summer, the Obama campaign continued that tradition, emphasizing a negative message about protecting our national house from an invader named Mitt Romney. That message worked well enough to prevent Romney from moving into the lead. But it didn’t give Obama a lead either.

During the Democratic convention, though, we saw a shift in tone. Clinton wowed the audience and media with a speech that largely accentuated the positive. When I read Obama’s acceptance speech with my best skeptical eye, even looking between the lines for an implied narrative of protecting American from threats and dangers, I must admit I had a hard time finding it. The speech really was almost all about a vision of a better future, with the candidate, of course, presenting himself and his party as the bridge to that future.

Now Obama may be opening up a lead by following the 1996 dictum of the “comeback kid” and giving us a kind of “hope and change” redux. If a positive focus on the future gives Obama victory and a second term, it will certainly be worth watching whether he uses that second term to try to fulfill the promise of his first campaign: to change the basic tone of American political discourse from fear to hope.

I wouldn’t bet much on it. The “protect us from invaders” them is so fundamental to American political life that challenging it in any significant way would be a massive, and politically risky, undertaking. Presidents win political victories most commonly by presenting their policies as the only way to ward off disaster.

Clinton himself is a good example. Though he may have campaigned on building a bridge to the future, he is best remembered as president for resisting putative threats like “welfare queens,” Slobodan Milosevich, and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.”

Obama certainly followed Clinton’s dictum during his first campaign, when he promised to move us to that politics of “hope and change.” In fact, though, Obama won mainly by using the “protect us from invaders” plot line so effectively (in this case, an invasion of economic disaster), as I argued in a recent article in the journal Political Theology. I also showed that his most important speeches during his first year in office were based on that negative theme.

I haven’t done careful research on the president's rhetoric since then, but my impression is that it shows a mix of positive messages -- “a future built to last” -- and negative messages about protecting us from dangers foreign and domestic (mostly China and the rising federal debt), both driven by political necessity.

A second term Obama is likely to focus on getting a few more landmark pieces of legislation through a Congress dominated by Republican obstructionists, as well as insuring another Democratic victory in 2016. And the best -- perhaps only -- way to achieve both goals is to lean heavily on the rhetoric of resisting threats to the nation, as history shows.

Still, it’s worth noting that a more positive message may very well turn out to be the key to victory for an incumbent whose chances, not long ago, looked rather uncertain. If Obama does win, the consequences are impossible to predict with any certainty. A political narrative, like a politician, always has a chance to be the next “comeback kid.” 

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