In 1996, Bill Clinton promised to build a “bridge to the 21st century.”
In 1968, Richard Nixon spoke for the “forgotten American,” who was overlooked in the cultural upheaval of the Sixties.
In 1984, a Ronald Reagan campaign commercial fretted over a bear that might maul the U.S. of A. (Hey, nobody said the symbols had to be sophisticated.)
Earlier this month, the Obama 2012 campaign released an online slideshow titled “The Life of Julia.” The cartoon figure named Julia is shown at various stages of life; in each a federal government program is looking out for her. From Head Start to federal dollars for public schools to a Small Business Administration loan to Social Security, the campaign reminds voters of the programs its candidate seeks to protect while at the same time noting what Mitt Romney might do to them if he’s in the White House. In other words, nothing more than compare-and-contrast politics.
Reviews of Julia have been mixed. Liberal pundit Frank Rich called it a “didactic comic strip” that “suggested what Cathy might have looked like had it been conceived by a humorless committee of social planners in a Scandinavian government bureaucracy.”
Jonathan Chait of New York magazine says the feature “portrays government in a positive way because this is its contrast with Romney, who has tied himself to a sweeping anti-government agenda.”
Conservatives have called “The Life of Julia” a perfect illustration of the nanny state and the character as someone “utterly dependent on government.”
Of course, how it plays with pundits on the left and the right matters less than how it plays with the voters. There is some preliminary evidence that “The Life of Julia” is spreading rapidly throughout the social media universe, a below-the-radar movement that might widen Obama’s gender-gap advantage.
How a cartoon strip works or doesn’t work is the concern of well-paid political consultants, and not us. (If imitators spring up, we can know for sure it’s working.)
However, the reality behind the symbol is what matters. Each program mentioned in “The Life of Julia” (www.barackobama.com/life-of-julia) is valued by most Americans. Even those who oppose a large federal government realize that ridding the United State of, say, Social Security is an uphill battle that must be couched in the language of “reform.” This explains the urgency of conservatives to kill the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 in its toddlerhood. Once Americans realize the full benefits of a more universal health care system — even one as imperfect as Obamacare — they will be unwilling to part with it.
The reason is because real people — not cartoon characters — benefit from these programs.