Remember The Man from Glad? He was the white-haired guy in the trench coat who, in those old commercials for Glad Plastic Wrap, would descend from the sky by glider or air pontoon, touching down in various suburban American backyards. Then he’d head for a kitchen, to take command of some agitated housewife’s food storage problems.
Some 45 years later, one of the marvels of this year’s presidential election is that both parties are currently looking to the heavens, conjuring up a controversial -- but still-commanding -- white-haired savior to star in their ads: The Man from Hope.
Yup, strange as it seems, it’s the majorly rehabilitated Bill Clinton, who appears to save the day as a superhero-ish figure in spots for both Romney and Obama. (And speaking of ex-presidents, the Dubya appears exactly nowhere, and wasn’t mentioned even once during the first night of the Republican convention.)
Employing the beloved but impeached former president, both Dems and Republicans are targeting the white, working-class “undecideds” in the battleground states who could very well call the election. Call them angry, as well.
With few concrete issues to flog (pre-convention and debates), each party is drawing on the nostalgia for the suddenly halcyon Balanced-Budget mid-‘90s. But, still, it’s unexpected: four years ago, if you recall, in the last hard-fought campaign for the Democratic nomination, Barack battled it out with Hillary, and the relationship between Bill and Barack was one of icy enmity. And, as for the Republicans, I doubt anyone would have suggested in 2008 that offering a salute to the golden age of welfare under Bill Clinton was a way to reach disenfranchised workers. But more about that later.
First, the Obama spot. Called “Clear Choice,” it’s about the economy, stupid. (And jobs, jobs, jobs.)
As a fast talker addressing the camera, former president gets a lot in here: “This election to me is about which candidate is more likely to return us to full employment,” a seated but suited Clinton says, as his monologue is intercut against standard shots of factory tours, trained workers on the job and kids raising their hands in school.“ This is a clear choice.We need to keep going with his plan,” he says of Obama.
“The Republican plan is to cut more taxes on upper-income people and go back to deregulation. That’s what got us in trouble in the first place,” Clinton says in the ad, airing in New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, and Nevada. Then he talks about the Obama plan, “to invest in innovation, education, and job training.” This “only works,” Clinton says, “if there’s a strong middle class.”
Obama is seen only at the very end, in a quick clip of him in a dark suit, hands in pockets, striding next to the Jeffersonian columns outside the Oval Office, looking presidential as he says in a voiceover that he approves the message.
It’s vague, yes, but succinct about the economy and job creation, the territory voters are most interested in. And it doesn’t bash Romney by name. I like it as one of the few positive ads Obama has run.
Are the Democrats trying to make a seated Clinton seem like a “sitting president?” That would only eclipse Obama. But Clinton certainly comes off as more seasoned; it’s William the Elder, passing the mantle to young Obama for the faithful.
Whereas “Blatant,” the Romney spot, obviously wants to have Clinton, the “good” Democrat, eclipse Obama, the scary one. The ad talks about Obama’s “gutting” of the work requirement for welfare, which has become a controversial, hot-button subject that Rick Santorum also mentioned during his speech at the convention, when he talked about helping to draft the plan that Obama destroyed.
The spot opens with a shot of Clinton at an open-air signing of the bipartisan 1996 Welfare Act. It’s a static shot of a golden moment; the composition of the photo almost looks like a religious painting. Clinton is seated, surrounded by aides and politicians, and prominently standing next to him is an African-American woman. Cut to a shot of Obama, who appears to be standing beside a a tree. "On July 12, President Obama quietly ended the work requirement, gutting welfare reform," the ad says. "One of the most respected newspapers in America called it 'nuts.'" The hardly clinical word “nuts” is blown up in bold type.
In amending the Welfare Act, the Obama administration is offering states the opportunity to experiment with new ways of implementing the law in order to boost employment, not reduce it. Several states, including those with Republican governors, had expressed support for the increased flexibility, i.e. “waivers.” But Romney strategists have positioned the move toward waivers as Obama's way of undermining the law. "Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check,” the ad says.
Two-fact checking outlets have said the ad is misleading at best. (The Washington Post gave it four Pinocchios, and Politifact.com gave it a “Pants on Fire” rating.) I thought it was just too unclear to be effective. But many Dems and media outlets have jumped on it as racist. Romney said the decision to change the reforms appealed to Obama’s “base.” That use of “base” was widely seen as code for black people, (who presumably don’t want to work, as the stereotype goes, because so many of them are on welfare?).
To get all semiotic on the imagery, I thought it was a bad idea to show a black man standing alone next to a tree, bringing the suggestion of lynching.
That said, it turns out that the spot is wildly successful. At a Tampa forum hosted Tuesday afternoon by Yahoo and ABC News, Ashley O’Connor, one of Romney’s top ad strategists, said, “Our most effective ad is our welfare ad.... It’s new information.”
Romney’s aides deny any race-card playing at all. Another Romney adviser at the forum said the ad was important for all Americans who need a job "whether they are white, brown, black, blue or green.”
The truth is, the number of whites and blacks on welfare is almost equal. Clinton has denounced the ad as well. But as he learned during his own presidency, being a savior is a two-edged sword, and there are no actual superheroes.