Mitt Romney recently displayed the slogan “Obama Isn’t Working” on a banner at a campaign event. The slogan has actually been on Romney’s website since last June, along with a discussion of where it came from. “Obama isn’t working” is a “tribute” to Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 campaign slogan, created by the legendary ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi: “Labour Isn’t Working”. The poster featuring Thatcher’s slogan was chosen by readers of the ad industry magazine Campaign as one of the best ever to appear on UK streets.
Some people are angry because they find Romney’s slogan racist. While it is racially insensitive for a white candidate to imply that our first black president isn’t working hard, this unfortunate implication is made possible by another perhaps more fundamental problem: the slogan makes a presumptuous, overly personal attack. What’s more, it does so in a way that’s not at all clever.
Romney’s slogan is a flat-footed appropriation of Thatcher’s slogan. What made “Labour Isn’t Working” so great was its double meaning–it claimed both that the Labour Party wasn’t performing its job well, and that workers didn’t have jobs. A person might have agreed or disagreed with those claims, but would at least have recognized them as respectable contributions to civil political discourse. The criticism was aimed squarely at a political party and its policies.
Romney’s variation on the slogan simultaneously strips it of its clever double meaning and turns it into an ad hominem attack. That, I think, is what really makes it offensive. Of course, American presidential campaigns have always been personality contests, and slogans attacking individuals are not unprecedented. In 1940, for example, Wendell Wilkie used the slogan “Roosevelt for Ex-President”. But most presidential slogans present some kind of positive vision, however tersely and vaguely. Obama cheered us all on with “Yes We Can”. Ronald Reagan promised us “Morning Again In America”. Romney’s own more positive slogan is “Believe In America”.
It’s hard to see how anyone could have thought the clumsy and negative slogan “Obama Isn’t Working” would work. But maybe this linguistic insensitivity shouldn’t be surprising coming from the campaign of a man who described himself as “severely conservative” and said that he was “not concerned about the very poor”.