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The Hitch in the New Obama Documentary

It’s very hard to watch “The Road We’ve Traveled,” 17-minute documentary the Obama campaign released Thursday night, and not be impressed by its underlying premise, which is that the president inherited a terrible set of crises, and that we’re in far better shape thanks to his efforts. The video succeeds in recreating the clammy terror of the financial crisis, and in calling up the sense of relief you felt when this obviously serious and composed young president spoke so fluently about how we’d get out of it. It catalogues a record of legislative accomplishment that would inspire feelings of inadequacy in most two-term administrations. And, above all, it manages to equate rooting for the country with rooting for Obama in a way that feels perfectly natural rather than heavy-handed or self-serving. 

For my money, the two most moving and persuasive portions of the film relate to the auto bailout and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Perhaps not coincidentally, both give prominent airtime to Joe Biden and Bill Clinton, who turn out to be far more compelling than anyone else on-screen—or, for that matter, the voice of God that Tom Hanks channels in his role as narrator. 

Clinton highlights the problem with letting the automakers go, as almost everyone but Obama seemed to be urging at times, with his trademark finger-wagging intensity: “People have no earthly idea what would have happened not only to the economy, but to our self-image.” When it comes to bin Laden, the former president pays his successor a remarkable compliment: “He took the harder and the more honorable path. When I saw what had happened—I thought to myself, I hope that’s the call I would have made.” It was a rare Clintonian accomplishment: stealing the show while leaving the other guy standing at the center of it. 

Biden, for his part, offers an elegant setup to Clinton’s bin Laden coda, narrating a scene in which Obama goes around the table and finds pretty much every adviser hedging, then excuses himself to make up his mind. “It dawned on me, he’s all alone,” Biden says. “This is his decision. If he was wrong, presidency was done. Over.” It was a moment that actually merited its vice presidential hyperbole, even if a failed presidency would hardly have been the biggest casualty of botching the bin Laden raid.

Still, as much as the documentary affected me emotionally, it didn’t entirely work intellectually, and I’m not sure it was perfectly executed as an exercise in political persuasion. I counted two major problems: First, even more than the stimulus, the real key to preventing a depression was the financial rescue. But the film can’t do more than mention this in passing because of the lingering resentment toward the trillions of dollars in loans, guarantees, and other goodies that the government gave the banks. (I personally think the goodies were too good—we didn’t need to be so generous to the banks. But that doesn’t mean these goodies weren’t effective at saving the financial system.)

That leads to the second problem: Having spent the first few minutes laying out the scale of the economic emergency the president faced, the film couldn’t very well slice out the most critical part of his response without replacing it with something equally meaty. Unfortunately, that something turns out to be pretty unpersuasive as an economic fix: Health care. The film essentially argues that the economic circumstances forced the president’s hand on health care reform. Hanks explains how health care was “a crisis that others wanted to avoid” and that it was “crushing family budgets, choking business.” “He knew he couldn’t fix economy if he didn’t fix health care,” Hanks instructs us. 

Not only is this not true as a substantive proposition—the lack of affordable health coverage simply had nothing to do with the spiraling unemployment rate and shrinking economy. It’s so at odds with what most Americans believed at the time—which is that health care was a diversion from the country’s economic problems rather than the solution to them—that it’s hard to see how suggesting the opposite will do anything other than anger voters all over again. 

In fact, the argument put forth here isn’t even one the administration itself believed. As I report in my recent book on Obama and the economy, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel had planned to refocus on jobs and the economy by September of 2009, but that became impossible because of the ongoing health care struggles. The year before, during the summer and fall of 2008, then-Senator Obama’s political advisers pleaded with him to let go of the health care issue, which polling suggested was a liability, but Obama insisted on sticking with it and personally came up with the rationale on display in the documentary. “Our big health care speech [shortly after Lehman Brothers collapsed] was the first to make the connection between these long-term problems and the economic issues,” one campaign aide told me. “[That] was all him.”

Strange, then, that the Obama re-election campaign would elevate an argument they had major reservations about, and which didn’t work very well the first time they aired it, to the center of their case for a second term. 

In the end, it seems to reflect a gamble that most voters believe the economy is finally recovering, and won’t think too hard about the odd Obama decision that may have delayed the recovery. (At least in their minds; whether or not it actually delayed the recovery is harder to say than whether a lot of get-able voters believe it did.) In fact, the whole documentary is a bit of a gamble on that proposition—after all, the road we’ve traveled isn’t quite far enough if you think the economy is still lousy. This may be the right gamble for Team Obama. But you can’t help feeling there’s something slightly dissonant about the message at a time when the GDP numbers are still middling and unemployment is 8.3 percent. We have come a long way, no doubt. But whether we've come far enough is very much an open question. 

Update: Added the parenthetical in the final paragraph.

Follow me on Twitter: @noamscheiber