Did the first Obama re-election ad run during the Super Bowl? You might have missed it since the president wasn't even mentioned. It was a Chrysler ad, although even that wasn’t obvious. Instead, more than 111 million viewers were greeted by that tough-talking American icon Clint Eastwood as he delivered what amounted to a locker room speech to the country. “It's halftime in America,” he intoned, as the New York Giants and New England Patriots went in for their midgame break. He heralded the auto industry’s revival and said it is a model for a nation poised for a comeback. By the end of the stirring message, pollsters could probably have found a majority of the country ready to elect the city of Detroit president.
Since the Motor City is not on the ballot, the president would like you to consider him as a possible substitute. The message of last night’s ad closely follows Obama’s own re-election pitch—which is maybe why the president’s top strategist, David Axelrod, liked it so much. In many speeches, Obama argues that his intervention is what helped revive the ailing American automobile industry. He is also making a larger pitch that America is on a comeback. Mitt Romney and the Republican primary field argue the revival can only begin when he’s out of office. Whether President Obama or his eventual Republican opponent wins this argument will determine who wins in November.
Whatever the president’s official re-election slogan, the unofficial one is "Bin Laden is dead and GM is alive." In early 2009, the president agreed to an $85 billion bailout of GM and Chrysler. Both companies have come back to life, though not to their previous greatness. In 2011, Chrysler earned $183 million, compared with a loss of $652 million in 2010.
Obama uses the revival of the auto sector to make a larger case for his manufacturing-based economic plan that was at the heart of his State of the Union address (and therefore his re-election campaign). “The fact that GM is back, shows the kind of turnaround that’s possible when it comes to American manufacturing,” Obama said at a visit last week to the Washington Auto Show, making the same connection Eastwood does in the Chrysler ad.
Obama risks overpraising himself, even as he takes pains to credit the workers at the companies. (He also stretches the truth to keep from crediting George W. Bush, who started the bailouts.) But in a battle with Romney, Obama has a strong political case to make. As the car industry was crumbling in 2008, Romney wrote a New York Times op-ed arguing that a federal bailout meant “you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye.” He preferred a "managed bankruptcy"—not death, as Obama has suggested. The Obama administration said such an approach would not have worked because capital markets were frozen, which meant there was no money for GM and Chrysler to fund their bankruptcies privately.
Four years later, Detroit's revival complicates Romney's central argument that Obama doesn't understand how the economy works. Romney must explain why, despite the seemingly good result, Obama's policies didn't help, or they didn't help as much as other policies could have. It is a different version of the same dilemma Romney faced last Friday when the news that 243,000 jobs had been created in January made it momentarily harder to attack Obama's stewardship of the economy.
Most of the time, Romney has a relatively easy argument to make when he suggests that Obama is out of touch with America’s hard times. Polls show that nearly 70 percent of the public thinks the country is on the wrong track. Romney can use that fact to slam the president when he makes the faintest positive noises, as the candidate did after the State of the Union, when Obama claimed America was getting healthier. Romney replied by saying that idea belonged in “Fantasyland” (He was engaged in the Florida primary at the time, so allusions to Magic Kingdom-styled parks may have seemed apt.)
Romney regularly praises America. “I love America's hymns,” he says at every stop before reciting some phrases from "America the Beautiful." But in Romney's world, America's essential greatness is being blocked by Obama and his policies. We're not at halftime and about to rally. Instead, it's late in the fourth quarter, the team is down by a half dozen touchdowns, and the quarterback is waving to his wife.
But, as everyone knows, it’s hard to argue with Clint Eastwood. “This country can't be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again, and when we do, the world is going to hear the roar of our engines. Ya, it's halftime in America, and our second half is about to begin.” If Clint agrees with Obama—that America is on the edge of a return—how can Obama be wrong?
Of course, Chrysler was quick to say the ad was not political. It would be dumb if they'd planned it to be—you need Democrats and Republicans to buy your cars. But Chrysler doesn't get to decide what's political. By playing on the themes of American greatness during a presidential election year, they're necessarily embracing political themes.
The best news for Obama and his campaign team is that the admakers calculated that the country was so receptive to a pitch for a Detroit-like comeback that they made it the central thrust of the ad. The bad news for Obama is that—despite his rhetorical gifts on the campaign trail—he may not be able to rally Americans around this message as effectively as Dirty Harry can.
The people who run presidential campaigns tell us that successful candidates need to offer an optimistic vision of the future. For months, President Obama has been trying to find a way to argue that despite the dark times, things are looking up, and Americans can be counted on to rally. That was denounced as laughable by his critics. The notion, they said, was proof of how clueless Obama is. If Obama can tap into the same energy the admakers were trying to access, he will have found the voice he’s been stumbling to project. Then, Romney might find himself on the defensive, arguing why he’s not betraying a lack of faith in the American spirit. Because, if Clint Eastwood says America is ready to stand up, who is Mitt to say otherwise?