Monday, April 30, 2012

Decider In Chief: Obama's Osama Ad and Republican Outrage

On the anniversary of the Osama Bin Laden kill, Team Obama releases "One Chance"--an ad that promotes Obama's signature anti-terror achievement ... and criticizes Mitt Romney. Shameless? Brilliant? Both?

Let's take a look.

The Ad
One Chance is 1:29 in length which tells you right away that it's a "narrative" ad. It's there to tell you a story--in some detail--instead of being a 30-second air-blitz piece (I wouldn't be surprised if they trimmed it to 30 seconds to for some slots, though).

The ad opens with a somber but not dirge-like tune, which tells us "we're going to get serious here." It has the Obama-blue background with the "elegant lettering" . It reads, with words that grow to large size "The Commander-in-Chief gets one chance to make the right decision."

Five seconds in we get to the narrator ... Bill Clinton!

He is sitting in some kind of office (we see a blurry bookshelf in the background). He's wearing a blue tie and looking, even with the white hair, quite young and fit. He holds up a finger as he talks to us, smiling.

"That's one thing that George Bush said that was right," he tells us, "is that the president is the decider in chief."

As he lays out the case--that if anything had gone wrong (that it's not Bin Laden--or that the SEALS are captured or killed) it would've had a huge downside for Obama. But, says Clinton, he did the right thing--he made the tough call. We see images of the cabinet meeting, Obama pointing towards someone authoritatively.

Framed in the center of the picture isn't Obama (he's far left at the head of the table) but Hillary Clinton. We see the head-on picture of Obama pointing next. Clearly telling it to someone like it is.

We see a day-time shot of a compound with a huge stony mountain dominating the background. Abbottabad, Pakistan, reads the legend. Osama bin Laden compound.

Then we get to the mandatory green-lit night vision shots. Helicopters in flight, a pilot adjusting something in the bird's cockpit.

These are the shots that remind us that the night-raid was a touch-and-go affair--that it was real military men on a super secret, dangerous mission.

The next shot, 19 seconds in, is Obama, knuckles against his mouth, watching. He's clearly waiting for the word back from the field (or maybe pondering the seriousness of what he's about to do?).

Clinton appears again (for the "Imagine if they had been captured, or killed. The downside would've been horrible for him). And then it cuts to a silhouette of Obama in the White house window--seen from the back. The sides are blacked out. He stands alone, looking out the window. The buck stops with him--and it's a tough call.

"He took the harder and more honorable path," Clinton says. We see an iconic shot of firemen sporting their FDNY jackets seeing a massive scrolling news-feed: "OSAMA BIN LADEN IS DEAD" it reads. The man in the center has his arms raised in a Y of triumph.

These men are American heroes. They are cheering a heroic act. Their joy is joy for all Americans. Isn't it?

At 43 seconds in--approximately exactly half way, we get to Part II.

PART II: Romney
"Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?" asks the screen in its elegant Obama-blue. The music swells, adding a slightly more ominous under-tone. The slide changes:

"Mitt Romney criticized Barack Obama for vowing to strike al-Qaeda targets inside Pakistan if necessary." -- Reuters, August 4th, 2007

We get a white screen with a picture of Romney over a shot of the capitol building's columns. The quote appears to the left: "It's not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person." Mitt Romney (R) Presidential Candidate Associated Press April 26

Romney's own voice gives the voice-over.

"What did he mean by that," Wolf Blitzer asks, noting "It's given us a bit of controversy giving Osama bin Laden's role in killing 3000 Americans on 9/11." Whoever he's talking to is off-screen to the right. The piece is vibrant with under-statement as Blitzer uses every term in the constellation ('3000 Americans,' 9/11, and 'his role.'). The screen cuts to black before we hear an answer.

Again, Obama stands in front of the the window. "He had to decide," Bill Clinton tells us. "And that's what you hire a President to do. You hire the president to make the calls when no one else can do it."

It ends with the Obama - Biden sunrise of the Obama campaign logo. It may or may not be morning in America but for 2 seconds it's morning on your TV.

And hey, Osama is still dead.

What Does It Mean?
The text (as opposed to any "subtext") is very, very clear: Biden has been saying of Obama's policy: "Bin Laden is dead, General Motors is alive." He has recently amended that to: "Would Romney be the reverse?"--this ad makes that point explicitly.

Having Bill Clinton narrate it is a master-stroke. While Clinton did, in fact, famously fail to kill Osama, whatever that costs, he is remembered as a popular president from a time of economic strength. And he's charismatic. Very, very charismatic. Having him talk about Obama this way is powerful. He also can get away with the forcefulness of his speech because, hey, he sat in the chair too.

Notice that Clinton does not disparage Romney--they leave that for the news sources and Wolf Blitzer. Clinton just talks up Obama. This is because going negative hurts you--it hurts both parties (when seeking revenge: dig two graves. When going negative, lose two favoribility scores ...). So it's playing with fire.

Obama does not want to erode his scores (and Clinton, although it's less meaningful for him, doesn't really either--ex presidents need to be above the fray to some degree) and this ad walks the tight-rope of doing both. As such, it tries to be fair or, well, pretty fair (for example, it does not show an 'alternate reality' of Osama thumbing his nose at us or Al Queada cheering). It consciously avoids getting visceral.

What Do The Republicans Think?
Well, firstly, that it's using the Osama kill to score political points. Duh. They point out that Obama had criticized Clinton for doing exactly that. Maybe Obama did get Osama ("fair enough")--but he lost the middle east (blast the Arab Spring!). Of course it wasn't all that gutsy--who wouldn't have done it? Romney would--he's a slash and burn capitalist, right? The link also points out that Obama might've somehow slipped blame due to "blaming it on military advisers." I think that's fairy-tale thinking: Carter didn't fly the choppers that crashed in the hostage crisis rescue either.


I think that's clearly the message here: If you believe that a hypothetical McCain incumbent wouldn't be taking a victory lap for this, you're out of your skull.

Also: This TPM piece gives the 5 Stages of Republican Reaction to Osama's Death.

  1. If you can't say anything nice ...
  2. Congratulations, President Bush
  3. Stray Attacks
  4. Even Ralph Nader Would Have Done It
  5. ... And Never Let Us Speak of This Again

What Do I Think?
Firstly, I think it's clear that Obama was right to find this the ultimate test of his presidency. While he may have made the only rational call (bombing would be messy and might not confirm a kill--and without a confirmed kill we'd look awful--and might get into a hot-war with Pakistan--plus: what if he lived through it?) it was certainly a nail-biter.

I think it's also pretty clearly true that while "anyone would've done the same" is a reasonable approach ... it's clearly not true: alternate contender Ron Paul has said he wouldn't (then said he would). Clinton, himself, didn't go all out and while Osama was not yet the mastermind of 9/11, sending SEAL Team 6 into Abbottabad is, well, that's a pretty risky attempt.

So basically: Obama gets credit.

Secondly, would Romney have failed to kill him? No. Not likely. Yes, he criticized Obama but, come on: when Intel was saying "we're on to him?" Of course he'd stay the course. His approach might've been a little different--who can say--but I find it non-credible that Romney would let the guy go. And so will viewers.

But this is an object lesson in why you do not do blanket criticism. The Republican policy of criticizing everything Obama does has a cost--and this is it. You hand your opponents enough ammunition and some of it will come back your way.

Finally, this is an effective ad because of Bill Clinton's presence. He has the presidential gravitas to say the things he is saying. He is young enough to look good on the screen (Bush Senior giving us a talk would look ... well, at least Romney would look young in comparison). He is old enough to carry the weight he needs to. The ad, without him, is a victory lap pure and simple. With Clinton agreeing, though? It's more like a civics lesson. Clinton conveys that he agrees with Obama's take on the kill--that it was a hard decision and took guts--and so whatever we may think? It doesn't matter: 'cause Clinton actually knows (and note: I'm not saying that it was a super-gutsy move--I don't know if there was another real option--but Clinton saying it was a gutsy move is way, way more credible than narrator-X or Joe Biden saying it was a gutsy move).

So I think this ad works. I think that while the use of the fire-fighters image is kinda co-opting their hero status for Obama's political message ... he did earn it. After all, just ask his critics: maybe he did lose the Middle East. Maybe all the GOP guys should be shouting that from the rooftops (and squeezing their eyes tightly shut with fingers in their ears lest they be asked point blank what they'd do differently and have to expound on the virtues of foreign adventurism)--but after they're done ... although they'll want to whisper it ... it was the Obama administration that did kill Bin Laden.

Rating: A

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