Obama struggles with campaign theme

President Obama’s campaign has yet to find a clear 2012 reelection slogan that carries the heft of 2008’s “Change You Can Believe In,” raising worries among his supporters — and hopes among Republicans — that he is having trouble articulating a concise case for a second term.

“It’s a problem because in 2008 he had an absolute winner of a slogan in ‘hope and change,’ ” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor and expert on political advertising. “It said it all, and the things that he has tried so far this time haven’t worked in the same way.”

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Berkovitz is not sure that the Obama team can conjure something so effective this time around, and suggests the campaign is “struggling to find a core message.”

Obama formally launched his campaign this month with the message of “Forward,” but one senior Democratic Party official told The Hill that people who thought that would be the campaign’s lasting official slogan should “stay tuned.”

Obama at various times over the past year has taken “Winning the Future,” “A Fair Shot,” “An America Built to Last” and “We Can’t Wait” for test drives, but none has found lasting traction. Vice President Biden has suggested one possible bumper-sticker slogan: “GM’s alive; bin Laden’s dead.”


The president’s Twitter feed earlier this week featured a picture of him throwing a football at Chicago’s Soldier Field along with the words “Clear eyes, full hearts.” The slogan concludes with “can’t lose” and is borrowed from the TV show “Friday Night Lights.” It has been adopted as a semi-official rallying call by Obama loyalists, and can be seen displayed on walls — and a chalkboard or two — around the reelection team’s Windy City headquarters.

At rallies and fundraisers this month, Obama insisted that this bid still incorporates the foundational themes of his successful 2008 quest.

“If people ask you what this campaign is about, you tell them, it’s still about hope,” Obama told supporters at a rally in Columbus earlier this month. “You tell them it’s still about change.”


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Jen Psaki, who served as deputy communications director in the Obama White House and as a press secretary during the 2008 campaign, sought to reinforce the message of continuity.

She said that although “we’re at a different time,” it was nonetheless the case that Obama is “still the person arguing that we can bring about change.”

But Pete Snyder, the chairman of the Republican Virginia Victory 2012 group, said the message isn’t working, equating Obama’s current slogan to the ignominious attempt by Coca-Cola to introduce “New Coke” in the 1980s.

“It’s rather interesting that ‘Forward’ appears to be 100 percent about the past,” Snyder said. “If you go to any Obama event now they’re playing the same music from 2008 and trying to gin up the same vibe. It’s like a bunch of aging hippies looking for that old-time feeling.”

Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney faces his own challenges on messaging, however.

Perhaps the most memorable slogan Romney’s team has come up with so far is “Obama Isn’t Working," a barely disguised co-option of a famous poster that helped British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ascend to the premiership of her country a generation ago.

Romney seems to have settled on “Believe in America” as an overarching slogan, but his search has included other options, like “More jobs, less government.”

Republican consultant Kim Alfano argued that Romney has, for the moment, foundation enough simply by virtue of being the alternative to the president.

“Later in the campaign, he needs to give voters more,” she said. “But his message right now simply has to be ‘I’m not Barack Obama.’ ”

Obama faces difficulties on several fronts in trying to devise a new message. 

The nation’s continuing economic troubles make it virtually impossible to run on a message as unambiguously optimistic as President Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” ad. 

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More broadly, the mere fact that Obama now has a record of both achievements and disappointments makes him less of a blank canvas onto which voters can project their own desires.

“Forward” dominates Obama’s headquarters and the merchandise — and Democrats insist it will be the primary slogan during the campaign, even if it is augmented.

“The country has a decision to be made between going forward or going back,” the Democratic official said. “The more we thought about it, ['Forward'] is the right frame for the discussion we’re having with the American voters.”

Steve Elmendorf, who served as deputy campaign manager of John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid, also gave the slogan a thumbs-up. But Elmendorf said campaign slogans can get “over-researched and overthought, particularly if you’re the incumbent.”

Even though he’s a campaign veteran, he said he struggled to remember even one of the slogans used on the Kerry campaign.

“I really don’t think they’re all that important,” Elmendorf said. “You’re not going to encapsulate the campaign in one word, three words or five words.”

But Alfano, the Republican consultant, argued that the Obama campaign’s earlier failure to find a simple slogan seemed odd given the reputation for effectiveness and creativity that attended the then-senator’s 2008 effort.

“They shouldn’t be road-testing [slogans] so publicly,” she said. “It gives off the impression that these are growing pains, and for a reelection campaign that’s never a good sign."