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Obama campaign unveils 2012 theme

<p>If you missed Tricia's Morning Maddow post earlier, President Obama's re-election campaign released its 17-minute documentary last

If you missed Tricia's Morning Maddow post earlier, President Obama's re-election campaign released its 17-minute documentary last night, and whatever one thinks of the president or the election, it's worth watching as a product of political communication.

The film was narrated by actor Tom Hanks, and there were a couple of phrases, used at the very beginning and the very end, that helped capture what the Obama campaign's message is all about.

"How do we understand this president and his time in office? Do we look at the day's headlines? Or do we remember what we as a country have been through? ... Time after time we would see rewards for decisions he had made. So when we consider this president then and now, let's remember how far we've come and look forward to the work still to be done."

It's a fact of life that when it comes to politics, especially during trying times, much of the public has exceedingly short memories. It's easy to forget how close we were to a cliff when Obama took the oath of office, and just how much effort it took to bring us back to safer ground. With that in mind, the point of this documentary isn't to recite the president's greatest accomplishments -- though there's some of that, to be sure -- but rather, to refresh everyone's memory about the literal horror the president inherited before he even set foot in the Oval Office for the first time.

Even the name of the film, "The Road We've Traveled," is clearly intended to communicate a specific message: look less at where we are and more at where we were and what we've been through. When the narration tells viewers, "Not since the days of Franklin Roosevelt had so much fallen on the shoulders of one president," that's not hyperbole. Given that FDR "only" had to deal with the Great Depression, and Obama inherited a financial crisis and two wars, Michael Beschloss has argued that Obama's job was actually harder than anything any incoming president had to deal with in modern American history.

Put it this way: Obama entered the cockpit of a plane that was crashing, managed to slow and stop the descent, and then gain altitude, slowly but surely. As easy as it is to complain about the ongoing turbulence, the point of videos like these is to remind folks that the nose isn't pointed down anymore.

For some, this simply may not be good enough. Indeed, Republicans are counting on that sentiment. The 2012 presidential election may come down, not to Americans' answers, but to their questions -- the GOP wants voters to ask themselves, "Are conditions in this country good?" Obama, meanwhile, wants voters to ask themselves, "Are conditions in this country getting better and stronger every day?"

Which question will largely determine who's president next year.

For more along these lines, I'd also recommend the new issue of the Washington Monthly [full disclosure: I blogged for the Monthly before joining the Maddow team], and Paul Glastris' cover story on "The Incomplete Greatness of Barack Obama," along with his list of Obama's top 50 accomplishments, many of which weren't included in the campaign's documentary.

Glastris argues, persuasively, that Obama's record is as impressive as any modern president, but these accomplishments are not generally appreciated because of ongoing national frustration about the pace of the post-recession recovery. It's exactly this kind of frustration that "The Road We've Traveled" seems intended to address.