'Forward', 'Julia' and Sloganeering on Obama's Terms

"The Life of Julia" from BarackObama.com

Campaign slogans just aren't what they used to be.

To start with, they're shorter. John C. Fremont's 1856 epic, "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, Free Men, and Fremont," runs 57 characters long, which translates in the modern currency to more than a third of a tweet or, if briskly relayed by a faceless narrator, 10 percent of a pricey 30-second TV spot.

By the fall of 1952, minimalist of note Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had established the present-day standard with his "I like Ike" shibboleth. Small enough to fit on the era's preferred buttons, the future president's tag line managed to be both slick and direct enough to stymie any unintended appropriation by political foes.

Likewise, "Morning Again In America" was a winner for Ronald Reagan during his 1984 re-election campaign. It takes a special one to sell that vintage, but there's a reason why Republicans hold primary debates in his "library." The Gipper also had the built-in advantage of living in an era of little or no "rapid response." Mondale's people might have a clever rejoinder, but who was listening?

Less than three decades later, it's not difficult to imagine how a similar ad, even if it was for a car and not a candidate, might send the opposition hacks into collective apoplexy.

Mitt Romney's team has been careful to avoid such stray conversations. They've promised nothing too ambitious and asked only that voters "Believe in America." Not much to riff on there. Surely, no sober politico would advise the electorate to consider the alternative. A bit boring, all told, but it will never distract from the candidate's daily talking points.

President Obama has taken a different tack. He is willing to leave the flanks untended if it means a shot at something loftier. In 2008, his siren song of "Hope and Change" set fire to the body politic. Since being elected, the president's frustrated grappling with a wishy-washy economy and dipping poll numbers have been met with flip reminders of his audacious promise. "How's that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya," one old rival likes to ask mockingly of his supporters.

With memories like, well, elephants, Republicans this spring have taken from the past and put on sale "Hype and Blame" bumper stickers. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus even hosted a conference call with the express purpose of making sure everyone knew about it.

Nothing, though, has inspired in the opposition such squealing delight as Obama's recently revealed 2012 trademark, "Forward."

From noted funnyman Mitt Romney to stern "Late Show" host David Letterman, "Forward" has become an obsession for people who like their politics with a healthy dose of twee gibes. Romney set the tone, asking at a fundraiser in Arlington, Va., this week, "Forward, what, over a cliff?"

Party Republicans took the cue, with everyone from conservative blogger and gadfly Erick Erickson to Fred Thompson (Thompson seems to suggest he made the joke first, which just goes to show whatever you want it to go to show) putting in their lot with some form of the Forward … off a cliff! LOL! meme.

For his part, Letterman considered what words the Obama campaign passed over in "Forward's" favor. Among them, from the Top Ten list: "Up," "Down," "Sideways," "Futile," and his being the midnight hour, "erect."

The American Crossroads PAC, chaired by former RNC chief Mike Duncan, took the taunts one step further, producing its own Web video, called, you guessed it, "Backward." The ad has a dismissive laugh at the president's new slogan while offering, in kind, a more traditionally unflattering account of his first term in office.

"Backward" was posted Thursday, just as the Obama folks introduced "The Life Julia", an infographic-style account of a cartoon heroine's journey from preschool to retirement, with stops along the way at the university, her first job (graphic designer) and the maternity ward (wait, no wedding?) At each milestone, the accompanying literature spells out in just vague enough terms how her experience would be horribly altered by a President Romney.

The spoons at Julia's debutante ball were still warm when the right-wing commentariat barged in en masse to announce their disgust. Before 10 a.m. on the East Coast, conservative columnist Michelle Malkin had tweeted a promise to "read Life of # Julia to [her] kids to show them how NOT to live their lives - Tethered to the Nanny State." By lunchtime Thursday, the RNC had posted detailed math on how much Obama fiscal policies would cost Julia when the time comes for us all to pool our cash and pay off the national debt. Like it or not - like Julia's story or not - she was at the beating heart of a conversation being directed with imperious precision from a few floors of office space in Chicago.

It is, right now, 9 a.m. Friday. Julia is still, at this hour, a character in an infographic created by the president's re-election team. She is not a slogan, necessarily, like "Forward" or "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." Rather, her name and likeness is part of the new brand of sloganeering that seeks to provoke the conversation, not end it.