A cross-section of D.C. boldface names attended a screening of the new Edward Norton-produced HBO documentary “By the People: The Election of Barack Obama” at the Motion Picture Association of America’s office downtown earlier this week. Some were actually in the movie, others had just covered or worked for the campaign, but most had a connection to the election in one form or another.
What they saw was a fantastically adept effort by directors Amy Rice and Alicia Sams at capturing a mood. Those interested in the nuts and bolts of putting a winning presidential effort together will be disappointed; those interested in remembering the wave of energy that Barack Obama left in his wake and the devotion he inspired in his followers will be thrilled.
I must admit to some level of surprise at just how fervent the devotion to candidate Obama was. It’s one thing to intellectually understand from a cubicle in downtown Washington that the one-term Illinois senator was seen as an inspiring, transformational figure to millions, but it’s another thing entirely to see that inspiration brought to life and blown up on the big screen.
And yet, maybe the most remarkable thing about this cinematic souvenir of that unique moment in American political history is how dated it already feels.
Transformed from an inspirational figure into a chief executive with day-to-day responsibilities, President Obama has seen his status as an adored symbol of hope and change take a serious hit within his own base in the face of the intractable realities of governing.
Peace groups have turned against him for dragging his feet in bringing troops home from Iraq while simultaneously considering boosting troop numbers in Afghanistan.
Liberal health care groups have grown frustrated with him for not showing more backbone in defense of a public option in the insurance reform bill.
Civil liberties groups have grown antsy because of his unfulfilled promise to close Guantanamo Bay and release insurgents picked up on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.
None of this is to suggest that the Obama presidency won’t rebound from early failure or that his disenchanted supporters won’t return to the fold as his first term continues to evolve. It has been less than a year since the election and only nine months since his inauguration, after all, and even hope and change cannot overcome institutional inertia all by themselves.
Still, it’s fair to say there has been a considerable cooling of enthusiasm about the president and the brand of change he represents. “Yes We Can” has mellowed into “The Fierce Urgency of Whenever.” Which brings me back to “By the People.”
The documentarians had unrivaled access to the campaign, tracking all the way back to the 2006 midterms, before then-Sen. Obama was even a candidate.
As the primary begins, we see the crowds form in Iowa, the growing army of college-aged volunteers who staff his phone banks and go door-to-door and wave signs in the bitter cold.
As the campaign progresses, we see the stadiums full of people and little kids rattling off talking points and black Americans talking about the changing face of America.
As the general election comes to a rousing crescendo, we see freezing masses in Hyde Park and tears of joy and a resolute man getting ready to do the business of the people.
And all that’s gone now. President Obama is just another president. Partisanship has made its inevitable return, and the prospect of the healing, post-racial new beginning that Mr. Obama was supposed to represent seems to have evaporated like so many other promises.