Why Obama Really Wants to Make It in the Movies

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A Davis Guggenheim-directed Obama ad is full of boldface names and sweeping images, but its rollout shows that the medium really is the message.

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Last night the Obama campaign unveiled on its YouTube channel a 17-minute documentary-style film by Davis Guggenheim called The Road We've Traveled. The film -- or at least the soaring two-minute trailer for it -- has gotten much attention and a fair amount of mockery. By going with the director of An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for "Superman," the campaign was certainly going after eyeballs. But for those of who track the ins and outs of modern campaigning, how this docu-advertisement is being rolled out is perhaps far more fascinating than the movie itself. The Obama campaign is attempting to blend the social data of the modern web with its deep cache of video content, and in doing so, to create an immersive experience that catches and holds supporters.

In some ways, Guggenheim's film is just a chance for the Obama campaign to break out the nice china.

What the Obama campaign is playing with here is the a brand-new version of YouTube. If you're used to getting your YouTube content through videos embedded on websites, it's worth checking out the platform itself. The new YouTube is built around channels, and the Obama campaign has customized the heck out of theirs. Videos lead gracefully to more videos. Content is organized in verticals, along timelines and themes. There's an "Our Story" section, for example, that starts out with a 2007 video of the moment in Springfield when Obama first said he was running for president. A section called "Keeping His Word," is a bank of videos showing, first, Obama making a promise and then footage of him in some way keeping it. "From the Field" is a growing stash of videos of organizers and other updates from the campaign's on-the-ground organizing. "Dinner with Barack" video clips sit next to the chance to put your name in to have a meal with the president.

And where this gets particularly interesting is where you consider the potential of this sort of platform when it's powered by the social data that the web's major social hubs make available. The New York Times' Jeremy Peters hit the highlights. For example, as long as you've logged into Facebook and not logged out, the Facebook platform lets publishers use your social data to customize your experience. Watch a video about voter registration and you could be served up a list of your friends in, say, Pennsylvania who the campaign has judged from the data to likely be unregistered, too. You'll be asked to poke them to go out and register to vote. There's Twitter, too. Next to the Guggenheim video last night, for example, there was a call to tweet post-showing questions to David Axelrod using the hashtag #roadtraveled. That integration is at a rudimentary stage, but it's a fair bet that more is coming.

In the post-Kony era, the idea that digital networks can spread videos and ideas at mind-blowing levels should be a given. But the Kony folks didn't even make use of much of what YouTube has to offer. Check out Invisible Children's YouTube channel. There's not much to it than a video and some in-video calls to action. The opportunity exists to build what's basically a website within YouTube, one contextualized with social data and that viewers aren't eager to leave. That universe, in which narrative wins, is one that Obama wants to pull people into.

As a political matter, the extent to which the president's re-election campaign is becoming enmeshed this way in a handful of powerful platforms raises real questions, as Politico's Kim Hart suggests here. But as a campaign strategy it's extremely attractive. It's an opportunity of which the Romney campaign certainly isn't unaware. The Republican front-runner's YouTube channel features "Mitt on the Road," calls to action, and a subchannel dedicated to the notion that "Obama Isn't Working." But the Obama organization has spent the last five years turning itself into a media company. It has heaps of high-quality video content to dip into again and again. Romney's channel has 5.5 million views on 128 videos. (Rick Santorum's has 2.3 million and Ron Paul's 10 million; neither have customized their channels much.) Obama and his stash of 2,000 videos are enjoying some 174 million views.

Now, about that entrée. As a director, Guggenheim isn't always known for his restraint. The sweeping biographical video of Obama that he made for the 2008 Democratic convention provided fodder for Jon Stewart. ("The earthly son of a goat herder from darkest Africa and an anthropologist from whitest Wichita.") Though paid by the campaign to make this piece, he's a true fan of the president, saying on TV last week, "I'm in awe of him." But if you came into last night with those expectations it was actually a restrained affair. The video was something along the lines of a PBS Frontline piece, with talking heads and B-roll serving to make the straightforward argument that, hey, if you look at his record and what he came into office with, Obama's done a pretty good job.

For those of who track the ins and outs of modern campaigning, how this docu-advertisement is being rolled out is perhaps far more fascinating than the movie itself.

To make that case Guggenheim tapped figures like Bill Clinton, Austan Goolsbee, Elizabeth Warren, and Rahm Emanuel. Those boldface names are there to help viewers answer the questions posed to narrator Tom Hanks: "How do we understand this president and his time in office? Do we look at the day's headlines, or do we remember what we has a country have been through?" By going the extended video route, Guggenheim has built a stage upon which figures of some stature, especially Clinton, especially, could reasonably appear. And Clinton provides one of few newsy moments of the film when in talking of Obama's decision to approve the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden, the former president says, "He took the harder and more honorable path. When I saw what happened, I said to myself, I hope that's the call I would make." That's gold to the Obama campaign.

And yet that Clinton footage was left out of the film's trailer. The decision makes sense as part of a strategy of maximizing public attention by dribbling out content that Andrew Breitbart helped to pioneer. In the past, the Obama campaign has shown its savviness at serving the public clips of various lengths for various purposes. Videos of Lilly Ledbetter on equal pay for women, for example, came in both 45-second and six-minute varieties, and they helped confirm a truism of online politics: people are willing to watch longer stuff. The short video has pulled in some 5,600 videos. The six-minute version, 43,000.

Let it not be said, though, that the word hagiography would be inappropriate when it comes to The Road We've Traveled. This is Obama at his most finger-on-the-temple, sleeves-rolled-up contemplative. And yet, we witness no moral ambiguity or balancing tests. This is Obama making tough decisions where lesser men and women would quake. "All I was thinking at that moment," says Axelrod, talking about the first meeting of Obama's financial advisers after the election, "was 'Can I get a recount?" Biden recalls the White House discussion about sending U.S. military in after Bin Laden. Every principal in that room, said the vice president, told him it was a tough call. "As he walked out the room, it dawned on me. He's all alone. It's his decision. And if he were wrong, his presidency was done. Over." Count on Joe Biden to frame a dramatic moment.

From the auto-industry bailout to health care to Iraq to Afghanistan to Wall Street reform, "time and time again, we would see rewards from tough decision he had made," says Hanks. "Not for quick political gain, but for long-term and enduring change. When we remember this moment and consider this president then and now, let's remember how far we've come and look forward to the work still to be done."

The Obama campaign's bet is that that storyline -- the challenges he was served, stacked up against his responses to them -- is a winning one. And it's an argument which video is a particularly good medium to make. Just like four years ago, Obama isn't running so much on record as he is on narrative. But unlike his 2008 run, this is a story that is backed up by evidence, whatever you might make of it. It's not difficult to see why the moving picture, and the ability to tie that to targeted calls to action, seems to the campaign like something well worth spending time on.

Particularly, too, when they can use all the social tools at hand to bring people into that story themselves. As mentioned, right after the Guggenheim video wrapped last night, David Axelrod fielded questions about the film that had been plucked from Twitter. (Axelrod and the campaign's Mitch Stewart, acting as moderator, sat in front of a movie poster of The Road We've Traveled. The Obama campaign is not averse to driving home a point.) Axelrod's Twitter chat was a way, however successful, to turn what could have been an idol-worshipping moment into something more human-scaled. Axelrod and Stewart bantered over tweet-sized questions in a session beamed out to the world through a live video stream.

And yet, there was a hint last night that in 2012 we're all pretty aware about what we're engaging in. One of a few questions Axelrod took was, "How realistic is the West Wing TV show?" Joked Axelrod, "Where have you been?" Then he turned serious, telling of a day in the White House when just after dealing with an auto-industry crisis Emanuel called to tell him that Fargo, North Dakota, was underwater. "I said, 'What is this, an episode of The West Wing?"

Of course, that was a pretty popular show. The Obama campaign is hoping that this version of the West Wing will be pretty popular, too. They're making a start of it. As of this morning Guggenheim's movie has been viewed 104,000 times.

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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