The Problem With Obama's Reelection Message

Relying on a counterfactual, or alternate history, evokes a world that never was instead of a world that could yet be

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Democratic Congressman Barney Frank recently captured the problem with Obama's reelection message: "'It would have been even worse without me' ain't much of a bumper sticker."

Obama doesn't have a factual problem, so much as a counterfactual problem. A counterfactual is an alternate history, where we imagine what would have happened if someone had made a different choice. A recent piece in Time pointed out that a big part of the Obama pitch relies on counterfactuals. In other words, if the president hadn't acted, things would have been even worse. Without the stimulus and the bailouts, unemployment would have been even higher. Without the intervention in Libya, Gaddafi would have destroyed Benghazi.

Counterfactual thinking is perfectly reasonable. A president is a success if his choices produced better results than the alternative options. After all, Washington might not have passed the stimulus. America would then be a different place -- for better or worse. And it is the gap between the world we live in now, and this counterfactual world, that represents the true "Obama effect."

But here's the problem. As a sell to the public, counterfactuals have all the rhetorical power of an Anthony Weiner press conference. The road untraveled just doesn't resonate. By definition, counterfactuals didn't occur and are therefore difficult or impossible to prove. A counterfactual scenario also lacks emotional intensity because it never happened. Pondering what America would have been like in 2010, absent the stimulus, with 12 or 13 percent unemployment, is a parlor game -- not an exercise to get the heart racing.

Consider the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Many have criticized the United States for failing to stop the killing. But imagine that we rewind the tape of history, and this time Bill Clinton does send in the Marines and the massacres never happen. Just like today in Libya, the president would have defended the mission with a counterfactual -- we averted genocide. And just like today in Libya, the intervention would probably be unpopular because the genocide would only exist as a counterfactual, not as a lived reality.

Paradoxically, if the United States had waited to intervene in 1994 until the genocide was well underway, Washington would have saved fewer lives, but Clinton would have received more credit. His pitch would no longer rely on a counterfactual -- the United States was actually stopping evil in its tracks.

So what can Obama do about his counterfactual dilemma? The obvious solution is to stick to the facts, and base his reelection pitch on tangible progress. There is a world of difference between selling a Libyan campaign that prevented worse massacres from happening, and selling a Libyan campaign that ended in Gaddafi's removal.

So does this mean that Obama should give up imagining alternate worlds? Not at all. As the saying goes, politicians campaign in poetry not in prose. We like visions of a different reality. It's just that we get excited by alternate futures -- not by alternate pasts. Obama's poetry needs to evoke worlds that could yet be, not worlds that never were.

Image credit: AP

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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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