Presidential election adverts have the potential to set the tone for campaigns and to make their mark in history. Notable examples include Lyndon Johnson’s notorious Daisy advert from 1964 and the commercials from President Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984, The Bear and Morning in America.
It is unlikely that this latest effort from the Obama team entitled ‘One Chance’, will end up in this category of historically important averts, but it certainly appears that the Obama team has missed an historic opportunity to call for unity in this message. Essentially a 90 second commentary by former President Bill Clinton discussing Barack Obama’s decision to launch the mission that took out Osama bin Laden a year ago, the campaign advert has received widespread criticism.
The film goes beyond mere advocacy of the president’s decision to raise doubts as to whether Mitt Romney would have made the same call and launched the raid that killed bin Laden. It does so by use of Wolf Blitzer reading a Romney quote from several years ago, in which he questions the wisdom of “moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars to catch one person.” The suggestion that the president is ‘dancing in the End Zone’ was exacerbated by Obama’s decision to address the nation from Afghanistan last night.
In previous presidential elections, candidates have repeatedly sought to portray themselves as being strongest in terms of national security. During the Cold War in particular any weakness in this area was quickly pounced upon and exploited as a sign of weakness and unsuitability for the highest office in the land. Flaws in this area proved fatal for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, for George McGovern in 1972 and Michael Dukakis never overcame his disastrous tank ride in 1988. Even Senator John Kerry, a decorated war hero, was unable to adequately exploit his escapades in Vietnam despite the contrasting positions adopted during that conflict by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
Interestingly, the advert does not feature Obama making any comment upon the killing. Instead he is shown in silhouette, looking out of a window in the Green Room of the White House, in an image clearly designed to replicate George Tames’ classic portrait of President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office, alone with the awesome responsibility of power.
What is surprising, perhaps, is that Obama has taken so long to play the bin Laden card and one wonders how comfortable he is in doing so? However the president feels personally about this, he and his campaign have clearly recognised that they cannot afford to be out-muscled by their Republican challenger. History reveals that Republicans have traditionally been far more effective at presenting themselves as the natural defenders of U.S. national security in contrast to their Democratic rivals.
There is a long tradition in the United States of electing Republicans in time of national security threats and Democrats in time of economic crisis. This has been referred to as the ‘Daddy’ and ‘Mommy’ reaction to challenges; ‘Daddy’ will defend you, ‘mommy’ will sort out the finances. Clearly, this is far from flattering to Democratic Party sensibilities and the validity of this charge is questionable; it was, of course, Democratic administrations that took the United States into World War I, II, Korea and Vietnam. There is, therefore, something of a conservative myth of national security strength.
In 2008 Obama was a less muscular candidate and was attacked on this basis by Senator Hillary Clinton in her advert asking whom America wanted in the White House to take an emergency call at 3am. With a distinguished military record and family heritage, Senator John McCain was the national security candidate, but this was of little benefit in a time of financial crisis, which helped deliver the presidency to Barack Obama.
Four years later Obama needs to take advantage of his dual role as President and Commander-in-Chief to maximise his chance for re-election. To do so he is seeking to emphasize his successes, minimise his errors and exacerbate any perceived weakness in his opponent. In doing so he has the benefit of having been the president who authorised the mission that finally killed Osama bin Laden, over a decade after the assault on Washington and New York.
Some have suggested that his attempt to benefit from such an action is akin to Nixon claiming credit for the Moon landing in July 1969; an event that occurred under his watch, but which had been initiated almost a decade earlier by his fiercest political rival, President Kennedy. This, however, is disingenuous. All presidents have to take responsibility for events that occur on their watch, both good and bad. Just as President Carter was forced to run for re-election having launched the disastrous effort to recapture American hostages that resulted in the loss of life following helicopter crashes in the desert, so Obama gets to run as the president who got bin Laden. To deny him this achievement is petty.
Taking credit for operational successes during tenure in office is a time-honoured tradition. Claiming credit for engaging with the enemy has occurred in presidential addresses before and will happen in the future. President Obama is far from unusual in this regard.
However the campaign advert has missed an excellent opportunity to rally support and unify the nation. In seeking to highlight only the role played by the president in launching the operation to kill bin Laden, it has rightly been criticised for not mentioning the vital role played by the intelligence services, the military in general, SEAL Team 6 in particular and the work put in by the Bush Administration long before Obama came to office. A few words to share the accolades would have made a world of difference and actually benefited the White House by appearing to be magnanimous rather than triumphant. It has even led to criticism by the very Navy SEALS who led the operation.
This poor choice has been compounded by the un-necessary decision to raise questions as to whether Mitt Romney would have launched such an operation. Such a stance is churlish and un-becoming the office of the presidency. Strategically it makes no sense; this is a campaign message by the President of the United States and he should not need to engage his as yet un-anointed opponent in such a broadcast.
The Obama campaign’s actions have actually granted Mitt Romney the opportunity to appear gracious and generous in his response. Speaking alongside former Mayor Ruddy Giuliani in New York, the presumptive Republican candidate spoke yesterday of his admiration for ALL concerned with the raid that killed bin Laden, including President Obama, but also the SEAL Team 6, the CIA etc. Vitally he noted the strategic error that the Obama campaign had made: “I think politicizing it and trying to draw a distinction between himself and myself was an inappropriate use of the very important event that brought America together,” Romney said. It was, perhaps, the most presidential that Romney has sounded on the campaign so far.
With the campaign season in America about to move into high gear, we can expect to see far more of these commercials, advocating one candidate or another. The Romney campaign has proved to be the masters of attack ads during the Republican primary season. The Obama campaign would be wise to note that the best American political ads have not needed to highlight the apparent flaws in an opponent, but merely to advance the unifying qualities of their own candidate to inspire the very sense of hope and calm that is required in national leadership. The Obama campaign must devise a better, more bi-partisan way of doing this if it is to avoid falling prey to the inevitable attack ads that have so far proved to be so successful for Mitt Romney.
A version of this article first appeared on The Commentator.
I was asked to appear on Sky News to discuss the President’s activities this week, I hope you enjoy my comments: