“Over the last two and a half years, change turned out to be tougher than we expected.” – President Barack Obama
In 2008, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign used the slogan, “Change we can believe in.” It was often invoked in short-form: “Change,” alongside a second monosyllabic platform: “Hope.”
Without analyzing the success of Obama’s campaign, using the theme of change was a brilliant cornering of the market on what the American people wanted. People were fed up with the direction of the country. For six years, President Bush had averaged a 29 percent approval rating. Congress was similarly in the dumps. The country was engaged in two unpopular wars and teetering on the cusp of a third. Of course people wanted change.
But by claiming the theme of change as though it was Obama’s unique position, the campaign shrewdly cut his opponent, John McCain, out of the conversation about the country’s future. Why, if Obama is pro change, then his opponent is . . . anti-change? so went the subconscious organization of a binary choice.
The theme was also a spoonful of yogurt for an intellectually exhausted American public. It didn’t ask you to chew your facts or feelings on taxes, or immigration, or even the wars. It only asked you to decide whether you liked the status quo or wanted a change, without encumbering the choice with a definition of either option. Obama’s campaign became the ultimate Rorschach test. And an us-against-them electorate didn’t object to it.
But the real strategic brilliance of Obama’s campaign was embracing the theme of change just when it was surging in demand for the first time in modern history. In the whirlwind of the last two change elections, it is easy to slip into an assumption that change has always been a hot commodity. But in fact, in the last fifty years, presidential campaigns almost never promised it in such a raw, unexplained absolute.
Of the more than twenty campaign slogans used by successful presidential campaigns since 1960, only one – Jimmy Carter’s “A Leader, for a Change” in 1976 – promoted the concept of our nation striking out in new directions. It can be argued other successful campaigns promised types of change, like George HW Bush’s “A Kinder, Gentler Nation” in 1988 or Bill Clinton’s “Putting People First” in 1992. But these slogans conveyed an actual policy direction more than change for change’s sake.
The last presidential candidate to put the word change on his banner was Walter Mondale in 1984, running on “America Needs a Change.” And he suffered the worst electoral defeat in United States history.
In fact, in the popularity contest of past campaign slogans, change loses badly to nostalgia. From Gerald Ford’s “He’s Making Us Proud Again” in 1976, to Ronald Reagan’s “Are You Better Off Now Than You Were Four Years Ago?” in 1980 and “It’s Morning Again in America” in 1984, the trend is a promise to restore something that’s lost in our past. And lest we suspect a strictly partisan trend, let’s not forget John Kerry’s motto in 2004: “Let America be America Again.”
Obama staked out new ground in 2008 when he promised change. Without offering the voters the comfort of knowing what was going to change or how it would change, the man who is now President offered only that something would be different once he was elected. And the people bit the hook.
There is only a certain depth of inference that campaign slogan analysis can provide our questions about today’s politics. But the Obama campaign’s unrivaled achievement in non-specificity hints at something in the context of other new precedents – the recent string of change elections, and the historic lows we see in the President’s job approval rating, in Congress’ job approval rating, and in the country’s optimism about its future.
A lot of this can be attributed to the economic recession over the last several years, but it is important to note, these trends began before the economic downturn started. In fact, a stronger argument suggests the recession has lingered because these phenomena hold down a more effective government response to the crisis.
So what can we infer from these precedents? First, we can establish that the public’s hate for the status quo has never been higher in modern history. Second, we know the public has not yet received the change it wants. And finally, we know that none of the politicians have succeeded yet at giving or articulating that elusive change.
This leaves just one more question to be answered: What is it that the public wants?
Josh Rosa is the author of Gutsy Opinions: How to Finally Beat the Politics of Us and Them. Available from Amazon; click here for reviews and complete ordering information.