I have an impressive streak going. I have never in my lifetime missed even one, single 30 minute presidential campaign infomercial when aired in prime time on network television. When I heard that the Obama campaign would be producing one for this year's election, I planned my night accordingly. So there I was, Thursday night, 9:30 pm, soda pop in hand and popped corn at the ready to take it all in.
0:15 I wondered if this would come off overbearing and obnoxious for Obama, but, if anything, the opening of this special seems understated: No Obama, no obvious campaign references, no canned images of prairies or valleys. We are introduced to two real, hard working Americans, Liz and Jack, and they have named the special "30 Rock," surely a reference to Obama's youthful look and appearance.
I have to say, a smart move from the Obama campaign. They will let the message speak for itself, and the story play out. They won't be shoving the candidate down our throats.
0:30 Off the bat, Jack, an ambitious worker who has been struck by hard times in the current economy, takes a shot at Vice President Dick Cheney, stating that he is made mostly of metal. I am pretty confident that is not true, and frankly surprised that the campaign special would open with such partisan, divisive rancor. I'd expect David Axelrod to have to walk back that line today.
1:05 This special is being very coy. It seems that they are letting Jack's character, his frustrations and ambitions, represent Obama, and to a greater extent, Americans. "There's no chance that I'm blowing this," says Jack, and he says it with such conviction that we have no choice but to believe him. Classic Obama!
2:30 The special has shifted into an office setting and introduced us to a slew of new Americans. We're presented with a real slice of Americana - people of different colors, intellects, personalities, ages, all united by the American dream, all working hard to achieve. It's inspiring.
3:00 Jenna, an Elisabeth Hasselbeck looking Republican, gushes to the camera about a "residual check" she has received: "I'm going to use this 300 dollars to buy us all some new boots for me." Zing! That was a sharp, incisive criticism of the failings of trickle down economics. That may be the best criticism of the economic bailout package I have heard yet.
4:10 Liz, a hard working single woman wants to adopt a baby and we will be seeing her evaluated by the adoption agency. It was a smart decision by the Obama campaign to use this woman, an echo of Obama's suggestion to make adoption easier and more commonplace in America. The policy might shorten the gap between the pro-life and pro-choice camps, and alluding to it here might grab a few on the fence pro-lifers.
5:50 Jack is struggling with Devin for control, for the "presidency" of his "company." This struggle is clearly depicted to parallel Obama (Jack) vs. McCain-Bush (Devin). Jack laces into Devin, and thereby Bush, with a savage attack. "He's a party boy with a grown man's job... I can be of service; let me help you." This seems like a cheap shot, rather than something substantive. I would have imagined the campaign would have gone after Bush's handling of Katrina, the economy, the war on terror or torture. This seems more like a line out of "W." than a sentence that should be found in a campaign special.
7:45 Jack, the Obama character, takes a more nuanced position this time: "What am I talking about? I can't go through with this... The only path is the virtuous path." I think this critique of the McCain campaign's use of insinuation and fear tactics will resonate with a lot of undecided voters.
9:40 Devin, the McCain-Bush clone (he even rose to the top due to family connections), offers the conservative view of government. "I have a plan to quadruple profits by the year 2015... the old fashioned way... I am going to shut it down." Small government is a theme we have heard from the Republican party for a long time, but with the deficit rising and 700 billion dollar buyouts, it's increasingly hard to believe.
12:39 Tracy, a black entrepreneur who is thriving despite our economic woes, excitedly thanks "everyone involved for making this the most profitable thing since the war on terror." Tracy doesn't prove his claim, but I suspect he is just one of many Americans who quietly wonder about the role oil played in our decision to invade Iraq. This special is not easing up on the current Republican hierarchy.
16:49 We've come back to Liz, whose attempt to apply for adoption has been met with failure. A surprising set of circumstances, the kind of thing you'd only expect to happen in a sitcom, has caused the adoption agent to have forgotten her verdict. It is here, in this vignette, where the events that follow Liz and Jack offer a most basic, and yet effective, political argument:
Liz: I get a do over!
Jack: No we have to take her to the hospital
Liz: Do over, do over... she doesn't remember anything!
Jack: We're taking the mulligan, let's make this one count now
Liz makes a call to the possibility of ignoring our past, forgetting what has already happened these last eight years and starting from scratch. "Maybe this can work," the viewer is compelled to wonder. Couldn't we ignore everything that has happened during the Bush presidency, give the Republican Party a mulligan, and start over with John McCain?
Liz tries her do over, she tries to start again, but this effort is doomed. The interesting part, though, is why it is doomed. It is not doomed because Liz repeats all her mistakes. In fact, she doesn't. She learns and improves and corrects herself. It is doomed because even after correcting herself, the adoption agent -who has already forgotten history, forgets it again. This is a more subtle claim than "he who ignores history is doomed to repeat it." This claim is that he who ignores history can never truly move forward at all.. It's a compelling case for Obama; it is time to move forward.
20:40 Here is where the Obama campaign reassures the viewer and doubles upon its argument, while being surprisingly honest. When Jack asks Liz about the state of her adoption, Liz admits that she has "to start over with another agency. This might take a long time, actually." I have tried thus far to stick to what I think is the surface understanding of the depictions we have been shown, but if I can be so bold as to stretch Liz's words, I believe the Obama campaign is suggesting that the voter view America as a child, innocent and sweet, hopeful and spry, but at the same time saddled with its environment and human limitations. Barack Obama will "adopt" America, but in Liz's words, "this might take a long time."
22:00 This was an effective commercial, I thought. It wasn't perfect by any stretch. For one, I thought it could have been funnier. Secondly, I am surprised that Barack Obama himself did not make an appearance. Ultimately, though, I am left with Jack's closing words resonating in my skull: "The semi-virtuous path. You won't regret it." I hope not, Senator Obama, I hope not.