The documentary-style ad sums up the Obama 2012 campaign: inspirational, glitzy, and hobbled by the need to argue a counterfactual.
The Obama campaign released this video today, which is a trailer for an 17-minute film by Davis Guggenheim. Some corners of the Internet have described it as a "documentary," which is silly: It's an advertisement, even if it takes the form of a narrative about Obama's accomplishments during his first term: the familiar litany of saving carmakers, killing Bin Laden, inheriting a catastrophically broken economy, and more. (I'm old enough to remember when trailers were advertisements, rather that advertisements for advertisements.)
Still, The Road We've Traveled has many of the hallmarks of Guggenheim's award-winning documentary films, which include An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman: a sweeping social aim at the center, a star-studded cast (this one features Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, David Axelrod, and Rahm Emanuel, with narration by Tom Hanks), dramatic music. The full film is being released at campaign events next week.
Watching the president's friends and advisers talking about how brilliant the president is and how important it is to elect him isn't all that surprising, or all that interesting. But the ad is worth watching because it distills the essence of Obama's reelection challenge. The campaign is extremely wealthy, with talk of $1 billion in total fundraising. It's glitzy, sleek, and sophisticated. It's got a charismatic leading man who still has a strong personal connection with Americans. Yet the president remains in serious danger because of the painfully slow economic recovery, a teetering Europe, and volatile events in the Middle East. Guggenheim's ad, likewise, looks pricey and beautifully engineered, but like the campaign, it is limited by a format that forces it look back. No matter how much Guggenheim or the president argue that things would have been much worse without Obama, his fate in November will depend on how voters are feeling at that moment -- not how they feel about a counterfactual (how America would have done, for example, under John McCain). History only gets you so far.