With Nov. 6 a full week behind us, the implications of President Obama’s reelection and Mitt Romney’s defeat should have settled in by now. So, now would be an ideal time to talk about it all, right? Wrong, actually. News outlets have moved on (hello, General Petraeus), and the public is just thankful the election is over. Imagine how peaceful Ohio must be at this very moment. Frankly, I am just tired of all the encomiums for Nate Silver and autopsies of Karl Rove, as on the nose as both may be.
Pushing politics, demographics and numbers aside, what can we learn from the most expensive campaign in American history? Not much, to be honest, but for me it reaffirmed the importance of a candidate’s image. Voters consider personality a decisive factor — a vital and uniquely human facet of our decision-making process. As much as we heard about how Romney is the perfect father, husband, parishioner and so on, he had a bit of a branding problem on the campaign trail. In comparison, voters signed onto another four years of Obama because, for all his failings and empty promises, they still trusted that he could see the job through. To visualize this dichotomy, think about the most memorable images of Romney and Obama in the last few months of the campaign.
For Romney, is there any answer other than his blurry profile from the leaked “47 percent” video? A supporter may hold Romney’s reflection at Jerusalem’s Western Wall in high regard, but it is hard to detach the overt political motives of that photo-op from any compassion he may have felt. When watching the infamous Mother Jones video, it is impossible to detach the surreptitious angle of the camera from a sense of illicit voyeurism. We, not just the “47 percent” but the 99.9 percent not wealthy enough to afford a plate at such a fundraiser, are not meant to see the contents of that video, so the forbidden images sear into our minds. And what ugly images to remember. The hidden camera is distant, unfocused, ensconced between fancy glassware and obstructed by passing waiters. That its pixel resolution is no greater than that of common smartphones only inspires more unsavory associations. How do we react to amateur videos on YouTube? With laughs, embarrassment, shock and nausea, but certainly not tears or goose bumps. The aftermath of the video leak was a defining moment for the campaign, the power of media and the priorities of the electorate.
The electorate chose Obama, and, if there is one sublime image that encapsulated his homestretch promise, it was shot on the devastated shores of my home state. In the picture, the President holds close New Jersey resident Donna Vanzant, who stands about a head shorter than him. Hurricane Sandy destroyed her marina and livelihood. Tears well up in her red eyes. The digital camera’s high-resolution brings out the wrinkles on her face yet emphasizes Obama’s smooth skin and salt and pepper hair. He looks both strong and wise. He remained optimistic, as he was reported to have said, “It’ll be OK. Everyone’s safe, right? That’s the most important thing.” This snapshot is worth a thousand words and the complete picture is worth closer to a million. To his left, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie looks on in silent gratitude — to the G.O.P.’s dismay, he did not stay silent, as he appeared on all the major news networks, Fox News included, to praise the President. The Obama camp now had beautiful proof that their compassionate candidate was also a capable and bipartisan Head of State.
President Obama is no stranger to moving images, in both senses of the phrase. Chief Official White House Photographer Pete Souza shot a poignant photograph that hangs in the White House to this day. In it, Jacob Philadelphia, a five-year-old black boy, told President Obama, “I want to know if my hair is just like yours.” He replied, “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?” The President bowed 90 degrees for Jacob to touch his hair and realize that, yes, the most important man in the world has hair that feels just like his. In the other definition of “moving images,” Obama has an active online video presence, as his “BarackObamadotcom” Youtube account has tallied 270 million views over six years of uploads. Stars like Will Ferrell and Jon Hamm endorsed Obama without too much fuss; more impressive is the prolific output of shorts that aim to both inspire and inform — within Democratic parameters, of course.
You may have seen the post-election speech where Obama expresses gratitude to his campaign staff and, in a rare shedding of armor, chokes up and lets a few tears flow. This fulfills the meaning of “moving images” on both counts. For all of his decisions and indecisions over the last four years that I disagree with, I watch a moment like that and am stunned that such a man admits he is, after all, just a man. Whether or not that qualifies him for President is not really the point. It simply proves that, even in a year of bloated campaign finance, nothing shapes a candidate’s image like, well, an image.