“Obama Isn’t Working”

By now you’ve probably heard about the Romney campaign’s big slogan for the 2012 campaign, at least at this point: “Obama Isn’t Working.” When I first heard about it, I immediately flashed back to a moment early in the movie Sid and Nancy, when in the background of one gritty London scene you could see a poster reading: “Labour Isn’t Working,” the big Tory slogan in the general election of 1979 (unfortunatey for the credibility of the filmmakers, Nancy Spungeon’s death, the dramatic fulcrum of the movie, actually occurred in 1978).

And indeed, the official explanation for the slogan posted last year on the Romney campaign website explicitly cites the 1979 Tory campaign as its inspiration, touting the professional awards won by the consultants who devised it.

But claimed motives aside, you don’t have to be especially cynical (or partisan, for that matter) to suspect that this slogan has a slightly different connotation when applied to Barack Obama as opposed to former British Prime Minister “Sunny Jim” Callaghan. At Mediaite, columnist Tommy Christopher suggests the Romney slogan is a “multiple entendre,” but that it’s very difficult to deny that one of its layered “meanings” is to evoke the stereotype of the lazy black man:

Just to be sure it wasn’t just me, though, I asked several friends about the banner, and four out of four pointed out, unprompted, the stereotype of the “lazy,” “shiftless” black man. One of the people I called was cable news fixture Goldie Taylor, who, upon hearing my description of the banner, said “Are you kidding me? You have got to be kidding me.”

Christopher’s suspicions are buttressed by the recent efforts of the Romney campaign and its candidate to attack Obama for “elaborate vacations” and golf outings. Such talk in turn reflects the ideological pressuposition of much conservative agitprop about the economy: the economy would do just fine if Obama would take the simple, obvious steps to remove the jackboot of Big Government from the throats of “job creators.”

In the end, it probably doesn’t matter whether Romney’s wizards are consciously promoting racial stereotypes, or if instead, contemporary conservative notions about the moral underpinnings of economic life are so completely intertwined with racial, class, and religious animosities that one follows the other almost automatically. But in any event, conservatives should not pretend that the Romney campaign’s love for the memory of the Iron Lady’s breakthrough campaign is all that’s going on here. Many regular folks seeing or hearing this slogan, personalized as it is to the president, are most likely to take it very literally: Barack Obama could fix the economy, but is too lazy to try. People in politics who blow dog whistles invariably deny it and usually express great umbrage at the very suggestion they don’t mean exactly what they are saying and nothing more. But in this case, it’s the most obvious meaning that is objectionable, and it’s not reasonable to expect everyone to understand the slogan is really just a gesture of appreciation for the artistry of Margaret Thatcher’s wordsmiths, or of some sort of innocent, nostalgic anglophilia.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.