A WEEK ago the Obama re-election campaign unveiled a slogan for the fall campaign — its answer to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” Bill Clinton’s “bridge to the 21st century,” and other successful re-election pitches. There were reports that the slogan-writing process had been a struggle for the White House, and the final product bore those rumors out. “Forward,” the Obama campaign will be declaiming to Americans, which feels like a none-too-subtle admission that a look backward at the Obama economic record might be bad news for the president’s re-election prospects
But maybe the White House doesn’t need a slogan. After all, it has a person instead: a composite character who’s been the talk of Washington these last few days, and whose imaginary life story casts the stakes in this presidential campaign into unusually sharp relief.
Her name is Julia, and she has the lead role in an Obama 2012 slide show that follows what’s supposed to be an American everywoman from childhood into retirement, tracking everything the Obama White House’s policies would do for her and everything the “Romney/Ryan” Republicans would not. The list of Obama-bestowed benefits includes Head Start when Julia’s a tyke, tax credits and Pell grants to carry her through college and low-interest loan repayment afterward, guaranteed birth control when she’s a 20-something and government-sponsored loans when she wants to start a business, all of it culminating in a stress-free retirement underwritten by Medicare and Social Security.
All propaganda invites snark and parody, and the story of Julia is ripe for it. She’s an everywoman only by the standards of the liberal upper middle class: She works as a Web designer, has her first child in her early 30s (the average first-time American mother is in her mid-20s), and spends her golden years as a “volunteer at a community garden.” (It will not surprise you to learn that the cartoon Julia looks Caucasian.)
What’s more, she seems to have no meaningful relationships apart from her bond with the Obama White House: no friends or siblings or extended family, no husband (“Julia decides to have a child,” is all the slide show says), a son who disappears once school starts and parents who only matter because Obamacare grants her the privilege of staying on their health care plan until she’s 26. This lends the whole production a curiously patriarchal quality, with Obama as a beneficent Daddy Warbucks and Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan co-starring as the wicked uncles threatening to steal Julia’s inheritance.
But if the slide show is easy to mock (and conservatives quickly obliged, tweeting Julia jokes across the Internet), there’s also a fascinating ideological purity to its attitudes and arguments. Indeed, both in its policy vision and its philosophical premises, the slide show represents a monument to certain trends in contemporary liberalism.
On the one hand, its public policy agenda is essentially a defense of existing arrangements no matter their effectiveness or sustainability, apparently premised on the assumption that American women can’t make cost-benefit calculations or indeed do basic math. In addition to ignoring the taxes that will be required of its businesswoman heroine across her working life, “The Life of Julia” hails a program (Head Start) that may not work at all, touts education spending that hasn’t done much for high school test scores or cut college costs, and never mentions that on the Obama administration’s own budget trajectory, neither Medicare nor Social Security will be able to make good on its promises once today’s 20-something Julias retire.
At the same time, the slide show’s vision of the individual’s relationship to the state seems designed to vindicate every conservative critique of the Obama-era Democratic Party. The liberalism of “the Life of Julia” doesn’t envision government spending the way an older liberalism did — as a backstop for otherwise self-sufficient working families, providing insurance against job loss, decrepitude and catastrophic illness. It offers a more sweeping vision of government’s place in society, in which the individual depends on the state at every stage of life, and no decision — personal, educational, entrepreneurial, sexual — can be contemplated without the promise that it will be somehow subsidized by Washington.
The condescension inherent in this vision is apparent in every step of Julia’s pilgrimage toward a community-gardening retirement. But in an increasingly atomized society, where communities and families are weaker than ever before, such a vision may have more appeal — to both genders — than many of the conservatives mocking the slide show might like to believe.
Apparently someone in the White House thinks so, which makes the life of Julia the most interesting general-election foray by either campaign to date. Interesting, and clarifying: in a race that’s likely to be dominated by purely negative campaigning on both sides, her story is the clearest statement we’re likely to get of what Obama-era liberalism would take us “forward” toward. ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
### TODAY'S QUOTE (On Progressives) "The paradox these confused dictators often run up against is that if man if flawed and incapable of functioning under his own judgment, then what gives a select few, just as flawed, individuals the ability the run a society?"