The Obama Strategy

American presidents who seek re-election when the economy is weak almost always lose. Badly. To buck that trend, the Obama campaign is trying a new and challenging strategy.

“What do we remember in November, 2008?” The voice, familiar and grave, is that of Tom Hanks, who narrates a 17-minute video – The Road We’ve Travelled – recently released by the Obama campaign. Nothing like it has been done before.

There are none of the standard tropes of election propaganda. Instead, director Davis Guggenheim – who won an Academy Award for An Inconvenient Truth – has given it the look and feel of a documentary.

It opens with sombre music and slow-motion images of crowds cheering the election of Barack Obama. Tom Hanks asks what we remember from that time. We see President Obama and his family stride on stage. “Was it this moment?” Hanks asks.

“Or this.” A crash is heard. Images of shocked stock brokers. News clips about economic free-fall. Foreclosed homes. “Ten years of savings, completely gone,” someone says. “Vanished.”

Cut back to Obama on that stage in Chicago. “How do we understand this president and his time in office?” Tom Hanks asks. “Do we look at the day’s headlines? Or do we remember what we, as a country, have been through?”

Cut to a snowstorm in Chicago. The president’s economic team is assembling for the first time. What they are told is terrifying: The economy is collapsing. “Not since the days of Franklin Roosevelt had so much fallen on the shoulders of one president,” Hanks says.

Not until almost four minutes have passed does Obama finally take office and get to work, and even then Hanks goes back repeatedly to the conditions the new president inherited. “The country had been hemorrhaging jobs,” Hanks says, “more than 3.5 million lost in the six months before he took office” – heavy emphasis on “before.”

The strategy here is not to say “maybe things aren’t so good but they’re better than they were.” That’s the sort of thing Jimmy Carter would say. It doesn’t work.

The strategy is to remind people of that white-knuckle moment when the whole world was plunging. We didn’t fear a recession. We feared the collapse of Wall Street, of the car industry, of the middle class. We feared a second Great Depression.

But that didn’t happen. And for that, the Obama campaign is saying, you can thank the leadership of Barack Obama.

This is an unusual strategy, to say the least. And a difficult one to pull off, thanks to some basic psychology.

Ask yourself a question: In November, 2008, how worried were you? How likely did you think it was that the crisis would produce a second Great Depression? Got an answer?

Chances are it’s wrong. And wrong in a predictable direction: Your estimate is too low.

Psychologists call this “hindsight bias.” Once we know how something turned out, we remember ourselves thinking that outcome was more likely than we actually did before we knew the outcome.

“Hindsight bias” is a big reason why we praise leaders who manage disasters but not leaders who avoid disasters. This universal truth is illustrated by the popular image of the Eisenhower era as a bucolic time when a do-little president preferred the golf course to the White House. In reality, it was an era of tripwires and H-bombs, and Americans owed their peace and prosperity to the president’s skill and good judgment. But only historians give the man credit. (When the French suffered a catastrophic defeat in Vietnam, Eisenhower’s National Security Council – including the secretary of state and the military’s top general – recommended the United States intervene with nuclear weapons. Ike’s answer? “You boys must be crazy.”)

For the Obama campaign to overcome hindsight bias, it cannot merely make the case that the threat really was big. Voters have to feel the threat. Emotion plays an enormous role in risk perception and if the campaign can make Americans feel a little of what they felt in November, 2008, they can increase the sense that maybe the whole thing really was going over a cliff. But it didn’t quite. Thank you, President Obama.

The other thing going on in The Road We’ve Travelled, which I’m sure we’ll see more of, is the creation of what are called “counterfactuals.”

There was lots of pressure on Obama to let the car industry go under, former president Bill Clinton says in the video. Imagine if he had.

“People have no earthly idea what would have happened not only to the economy but to our self-image,” Clinton says. An Obama adviser repeats the same message. Then Obama is shown giving a speech in which he talks about his grandparents and the horrors of the Great Depression. “He decided to intervene,” intones Hanks.

So imagine if Obama hadn’t supported the car industry. What would have happened? The Great Depression.

Imagining how things could have turned out better is an “upward counterfactual.” How things could have turned out worse is a “downward counterfactual.” What the Obama campaign is doing is quite explicitly urging people to construct a downward counterfactual and to be grateful that the president’s leadership kept America from going to that grim place.

That will be a challenge. Summarizing recent research, Neal Roese, a psychologist at the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University, noted that “people tend to think spontaneously about how the past could have been better rather than how it could be worse.”

In other words, imagining how things could have turned out better is something we do naturally. Imagining how things could have gone wrong is much more unusual.

With these psychological barriers to overcome, the Obama strategy would have been impossible in the era of buttons, bumper-stickers, and prime-time TV ads. But this is the world of YouTube. Video as sophisticated as The Road We’ve Travelled doesn’t come cheap but the cost of production is small relative to the money campaigns have and distribution is free. And the potential reward is millions of voters, even tens of millions, spending 17 minutes watching the most sophisticated pitch the campaign can make.

Expect to hear a lot about November, 2008, as November, 2012, approaches.