Obama, Clinton prove tough act to follow

They won’t be making movies about this year’s presidential election.

Compared to the blockbuster thriller of 2008 — which spawned a movie in the shape of the upcoming “Game Change,” HBO’s dramatization of the book of the same name — there is little sense that this election cycle will deliver a worthy sequel.

Even the man who took the leading role in 2008 seems aware that his star-power is diminished, his luster dimmed.

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“This election will not be as sexy as the first one,” President Obama told a crowd at the Los Angeles home of movie producer James Lassiter last October. “Back then, it was still fresh and new. I didn’t have any gray hair. Everybody loved the ‘Hope’ posters and all that.”

The sense that Obama or Hillary Clinton could become, respectively, the first black or first female president was tangible and ever-present four years ago. And Bill Clinton, the 42nd president and husband to Hillary Clinton, added a few peculiar twists and turns of his own making.

The epic nature of the Democratic struggle overshadowed a Republican race that could have been its own mini-series.

First, a slick multimillionaire got drubbed in Iowa by an erstwhile country preacher.

The result cleared the way for a Vietnam war hero with a combustible personality to resuscitate his campaign from the near-dead with a win in New Hampshire. In so doing, he set himself on the path to winning the nomination of a party that had rejected him eight years before.

Top off the blend with the selection of a certain Alaska governor as a potential vice president and a global economic meltdown in the final stretch of the campaign and — as "Entourage’s" Ari Gold might put it — “Boom!”

“This campaign is going to feel much more like a slog rather than the rollercoaster of 2008,” said Chris Lehane, who straddles the world of politics and entertainment as a long-time Democratic strategist and the co-writer of the forthcoming movie "Knife Fight."

The movie, due for release in the fall, stars Rob Lowe as a political campaign fixer who has to deal with the various personal peccadilloes of the candidates for whom he works.

Lehane pointed out that even the Republican race this time around lacks the glamour of its 2008 equivalent.

This time around, he said, “You’ve had some interesting characters who had walk-on cameos” — he cited Michele Bachmann — “but they haven’t had the chance to sustain themselves. The interesting characters weren’t the lead characters, and if you don’t have a compelling lead character you don’t have anything.”

“This GOP season has been a comedy, not a drama,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. “[It] has had a cast of characters that’s given ‘Two and a Half Men’ a run for its money.”

Beyond the concerns with Hollywood dramatics, there are serious and telling differences when this year’s race and that of 2008 are put side by side.

The surging candidate this time four years ago was the man who is now president. In December 2007, his first appearance with Oprah Winfrey in Des Moines attracted an estimated 18,000 people. In the Iowa campaign’s closing days, both he and Clinton were capable of drawing four-figure crowds, even in areas of Iowa traditionally inhospitable to Democrats.

The surging closer this year was Rick Santorum. His campaign wisely kept its events to coffee shops and small local businesses — venues in which the 200 or so people Santorum proved capable of drawing filled to overflowing.

Santorum pulled off a considerable achievement in coming within eight voters of defeating Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses. But any veterans of the 2008 cycle who witnessed his caucus night rally, held in a suburban hotel and attended by a modest-sized crowd, could have been forgiven for being unimpressed. The wind at Santorum’s back seemed rather puny by comparison with the gale that propelled Obama to victory four years ago.

The president, meanwhile, has his own problems — and they go beyond graying hair. In 2008, the rhetoric of his campaign was nothing if not sweeping and grandiose. This went beyond the famous promise of hope and change. He told the crowd at his last rally, delivered on election eve in Manassas, Va., “Your voice can change the world tomorrow.”

Obama’s supporters now point to the president’s tangible achievements — healthcare reform, ending the war in Iraq and finding and killing Osama bin Laden among them — but whether he or they can convincingly claim that a second Obama term would change the world seems, at best, a dubious proposition.

Even staffers who worked on the Obama campaign point to a palpable difference between 2008 and 2012.

“2008 was exciting because of the historic nature of the race but also because Americans were incredibly anxious for change,” said one former Obama campaign staffer who also worked in the Obama White House. By contrast, this person said of the 2012 environment, “It lacks ... a candidate who has inspired voters enough that they take action on their own to get him elected and bring about that change.”

The 2008 election cycle also drew an enormous interest beyond America’s borders — especially in Europe. Obama addressed a crowd estimated at 200,000 people in Berlin in July 2008.

Neither he, nor the election itself, is likely to be such a big box-office draw this time around.

“There is an air of disappointment in Europe about him,” said Denis Staunton, the deputy editor of The Irish Times who covered the 2008 campaign as the same newspaper’s Washington correspondent. “Although he is seen as being better than his predecessor, he has not really been a transformative president.”

Jonathan Freedland, a columnist with The Guardian, predicted that the election match-up viewed by most experts as the most likely could prove a snooze-fest in Europe.

“If [Obama’s] up against Romney, I don’t think there will be very much interest,” he said. “There is still a respect and admiration — and affection — for Obama in Europe. Most people would be disappointed if he lost. But, if Romney is his opponent, there will not be a feeling that it would be desperate for the world if he lost.”

Back at home, the Obama reelection team insists that concerns about a lack of enthusiasm are overdone. They point to strong early fundraising and other campaign metrics.

“We think that the notion that our supporters aren’t with us has been an elite narrative that we haven’t seen on the ground,” said one Obama campaign aide. “We’ve seen thousands of Americans join the campaign even though there wasn’t a primary opponent.”

The aide said the campaign’s goal is “to build the largest grassroots campaign in history.”

The numbers might be there. But is the magic?

“I think there has been a great turning inward in America,” said David Yepsen, who covered many presidential campaigns during a 34-year career with The Des Moines Register. “A lot of Americans are really hunkered down, concerned with keeping this jobs and paying their bills.”

“There was,” he added, thinking back to 2008, “a more epic feel to that election.”