Rahm Emanual did not look happy. “The financial sector—the heart that pumps blood into the economy—was frozen up in cardiac arrest!” Recalling his tenure as President Obama’s first chief of staff, Emanual paints a grim picture. “The auto industry was literally days from collapse,” he intones. Yes, you may have already lived through the 2008 financial crisis, but President Obama’s advisers think that economic amnesia is hurting their case with voters. That is the premise of the sharp, dark film that Obama’s re-election campaign released on Thursday night, a seventeen-minute exploration of the mess that greeted the new president when he came into office. People are tuning in: the video’s debut on Thursday drew more visitors to Obama’s campaign website than any time this year, which Obama officials confirmed to The Nation on Friday.
While the campaign churns out hundreds of political videos, “The Road We’ve Traveled” was designed to be special. The campaign tapped Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim to direct. Tom Hanks narrates. Bill Clinton and Elizabeth Warren make full-throated cameos. And Obama’s campaign staff aggressively promoted the video’s message to the press and its argument to the base. Around the country, in fact, campaign workers organized hundreds of events to screen the video and conduct trainings. And officials stress that getting people to watch the video—the goal of most viral marketers on YouTube—is not enough.
“We produce these amazing videos, but ultimately we want them to drive some kind of action,” says Teddy Goff, the campaign’s digital director. “So we’re putting a huge amount of energy into using video to advance the business goals of campaign,” he told The Nation in an interview after the video was released.
Still, Obama’s campaign is quite adept at getting people to watch their videos. While Newt Gingrich leads Obama’s potential rivals on YouTube, with about 10 million views total, Obama has racked up 174 million views. They range from the short and goofy—a clip of Obama dancing on Ellen has over 10 million views—to long and serious, like the famous campaign speech on race, which drew about 7 million (and millions more from uploads by others). The new documentary is signficant because, unlike those examples, it proposes a storyline that is not otherwise prevalent in the news or public conversations. Watching the film’s opening tour of the economic crisis is not just a bummer—which is unusual for incumbent politicking — it’s actually scary. At an emotional level, the campaign wants to reset the baseline for the president’s tenure. As Goff explains it, many voters just don’t have complete information on “how bad the economic crisis was” when Obama entered office, or “how much we’ve progressed since then.”
The campaign’s actionable goal is not simply to get supporters to “press send” and share the video itself, but to internalize the message and ultimately do their own sharing, in their own words, of the president’s message. Obama may have more Facebook friends than any other politician (25 million and growing), but his team is betting that the most effective marketing is still mouth to mouth.