It may one day become a footnote in campaign lore that in the dying days of the campaign, the Obama 2012 team decided that the answer to reinvigorating their candidate’s hopes lay in adding an exclamation point to his already vapid slogan. The blue bumper stickers, signs and banners would no longer read merely, “Forward” instead they would now say, “Forward!” to indicate just how emphatic their candidate was about going forward.
There could hardly be a better sample of the style over substance politics of the style over substance candidate than a press release issued touting the energetic qualities of its exclamation point. Sure the Romney campaign might be gaining in Florida, Ohio and Virginia, but Team Obama is getting vigorous with its punctuation signaling the progressive netroots that no longer will their man be satisfied with saying, “Forward.” From now on when Obama says “Forward”, there will be an imaginary exclamation point after it.
The triumph of punctuation over substance punctuates a campaign that has not really been about anything. For months Obama sleepwalked through campaign appearances, relying on his big money donors to convince swing state voters that Romney murdered steelworkers and keeps all his money in a Swiss bank account labeled Mitt Rommel.
With the first debate, Team Big Bird realized that wouldn’t work, and Valerie Jarrett got out the cattle prod and put an exclamation point at the end of Obama. Since then Obama has been putting exclamation points at the end of everything, but putting exclamation points at the end of every sentence doesn’t make people pay attention to you; it just makes you sound desperate. The problem with Obama’s sentences never lay in their punctuation but in their lack of content. And no matter how Obama punctuates them, they still don’t contain the reassurances that voters want to hear.
Since his first sentence, Obama has used stylistic tricks, weighing his pauses, asking and answering his own questions, and reaching for grandeur through cheap rhymes and even cheaper metaphors, and now as he approaches the inevitable period, the tricks just aren’t working anymore.
Every good writer and speaker knows that technique is a way of setting out the message, while technique for the sake of technique is like cake, it’s fine if you’re in the mood for desert, but it’s no substitute for a full dinner. Obama has been feeding his audiences wads of sweet sticky cake, ladling on the vanilla frosting and the chocolate, but as the unemployment numbers have risen and more families are going hungry, the voters who ate his cake last time are asking this time, “Where’s the Beef?”
Obama has more tricks than ever, but the time when he could distract his audience by finding a nickel behind their ears or making doves fly out of his hat has flown away. The people have seen the tricks and they want something more. They want an adult who takes his responsibilities seriously instead of a charming child doing tricks while picking their pockets.
The exclamation point is yet one more childish trick, it’s texting rendered as a slogan, it’s an emphasis with nothing to emphasize. It says that we are going forward even more so than before, but where is forward and where will following the bouncing exclamation point at the end of it take us?
Forward asks us to take the trajectory on faith, to be swept away by the sheer delight of seeing that much emphasis place at the end of a slogan. And not even the worst rally swooners are going to fall for it this time.
The energy of a campaign comes not from exclamation points but the faith that people put into it. And what people, the masses who show up in sweating groups to listen to a candidate speak, who hold up banners and make Election Day phone calls, want is a better world. Four years later it takes a great leap of faith to believe that another four years will offer anything better than we already have.
Liberals embraced Obama as an antidote to the grimness of the Bush years. Conservatives embraced Romney as an antidote to the grimness of the Obama years. But why would anyone embrace another four years of the great exclamation point taking us forward into even deeper debt, greater foreign instability and further partisan wrangling?
If the Obama campaign were genuinely an optimistic creature, instead of a zoo of spinning memes and frantic Tumblr pages, then it wouldn’t need to fight its wars on women or its hysterical attacks on its opponents. It could run a positive campaign rooted in its accomplishments, rather than clawing at media oxygen by manufacturing memes aimed at making Romney look silly, which only rebound and end up making Obama look silly.
But there’s nothing optimistic about Obama 2012. It shares some of the aesthetic sensibilities of its 2008 campaign, but little of the mood. It is not a campaign that is for change, but a fear of change. It hounds its target groups warning them of Romney and Ryan’s depredations because it is afraid of them and it wants its voting blocks, its caged captive voters to be just as afraid of change and of the future as it is.
Its slogan, with or without an exclamation point, isn’t sincere. It doesn’t really want to move forward, instead it wants us to stay where we are, it wants to replay the last four years, but this time with even greater dysfunction. The only plans on the table all involve tax hikes, health care cuts and partisan battles. And that means that Forward is really Backward, suggesting that the backward forward campaign might want to swap out the exclamation point for a question point instead.
After 2010, Obama had a chance to reinvent himself and his administration. Like Clinton, he could have found a way to synergize his agenda with that of the Republican resurgence in Congress and even claim credit for the popular portion of it. But Obama was too insecure to play the legislative game; instead he picked fights, called names and unilaterally began making his own laws. Now his pitch to voters is that if they reelect him, the Republicans will give up and come to heel. And if they don’t, then Obama has no fallback position except another four years of partisan gridlock or an imperial White House that now acts as two of the three branches of government.
This isn’t a scenario that appeals to any voter in his right mind. And it’s one reason why the momentum has been shifting away from Obama and toward Romney.
Obama’s mistake lay in his misreading of the Republican ascendance in the midterm election. Like his fellow progressives, he treated it as an attack by an empire of covert conservative interests that had to be beaten and humiliated at any cost. That thin-skinned response showed him to be a very poor player and missed the entire point of the exercise.
It wasn’t the Koch Brothers who decided in 2010 that his administration needed a check; it was the voters who cast those ballots coast to coast. They did not yet want Obama gone; but they did want his power to be balanced out by an opposing party. The 2010 elections were a sign that the American people were putting their new leader on probation. They didn’t want him to beat the Republicans, they wanted the Republicans to take the edge of his policies, like ObamaCare.
Instead of listening to the people, Obama put on his exclamation point and rammed ObamaCare through anyway. It was a Pyrrhic victory, the victory of the exclamation point over the American people. Determined to go Forward when the people wanted them to slow down, the Democrats persisted and are paying the price.
The last thing that the independent voters who rejected the exclamation point in 2010 want to see is its return. They are not interested in exclamation point agendas, but in mature leaders who listen to them and then act, instead of treating a setback as an opportunity to settle the question by yelling twice as loudly.
Maturity is a concept that the Exclamation-Point-in-Chief has not been able to grasp. That failure led him to a disastrous performance in three debates, going from absent to obnoxiously combative, without ever understanding why the voters that he needed were slipping through his fingers like handfuls of sugar in the rain.
Voters are not looking for a reenergized campaign, but a responsible campaign. They are not scoring the candidates on points, but on a willingness to work hard and make responsible decisions. They were swept away once by style, but now, four years later and four years poorer, they want substance and that has been the one thing that the Forwarder has never been able to deliver.
Like most men who have occupied his chair, Obama has aged, but he hasn’t gained any gravitas or grown into the job. Politics is still a game to him and he’s playing to win, but he doesn’t understand that to tens of millions of Americans, it isn’t a game, it’s survival. The exclamation point is the B-Ballers' sneer, it’s the gold plated 9MM in the hand of a hip hop star, it’s the thing that says he is in it for real and he means to win. But voters are coming around to the view that if he wins, they lose.
Obama has put an exclamation point at the end of his campaign, but what is there in front of it, except a goulash of green jobs that never materialized, Muslim democracy with disastrous results and class warfare with no class. The only accomplishment that Obama can run on is accidentally killing Bin Laden, instead of taking him alive and giving him a civilian trial as he originally meant to. And if killing Bin Laden qualifies a man to be president, then there is a Navy SEAL who actually did kill Bin Laden who deserves some consideration for the job.
Forward’s exclamation point says that we must go forward. But why? On the street, a child tugs his mother forward to a candy store, and when she refuses, he pulls harder. “No,” she says. “Yes,” he insists, adding his own invisible exclamation point to the cry. That is the Obama campaign in a nutshell. The American people have refused to go forward and the man who wants them to go forward is trying to convince them by putting an exclamation point at the end of his slogan, his plan, his campaign and his term.