Campaign Documentary Takes Audiences Down Memory Lane

Benjamin Koconis | 12/16/2010, 1:33 a.m.
"By the People: The Election of Barack Obama" is a behind the scenes look at the making of the 44th president. Courtesy Photo

Two years after one of the most sensational campaign victories in history, a movie theater just outside the District hosted a special screening of a 2009 documentary highlighting President Barack Obama's race to the White House. The film, debuted on Wed., Dec. 8, at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Md., and was followed by a panel discussion led by two broadcast journalists and two political advisors who discussed intricacies of the 2008 campaign.

"By the People: The Election of Barack Obama" is a behind the scenes look at the making of the 44th president. The film, co-directed by Alicia Sams, who attended Wednesday's event, is as much a lens into the political process as it is a tribute to the people who helped make President Obama's campaign a success.

Throughout the film, viewers can expect to see intimate moments with the First Family; Chief Political Strategist, David Axelrod; Chief Campaign Manager, David Plouffe; organizer, Ronnie Cho; Iowa Press Secretary, Tommy Vietor, and many more of President Obama's closest supporters.

Sams spoke before the screening to describe the evolution of the film which started well before Obamamania swept the country.

"Looking back on this now, I think this film is going to get more and more interesting as years go on, because you are going to see Barack Obama in Iowa in 2007 when he wasn't doing so well. We really got to watch the political process in action. We got to watch him get his feet wet and learn the ropes and evolve as a candidate."

Sams said that she and her directorial partner, Amy Rice, were trying to convince then state Senator Obama into letting them film "the education of a senator" back in 2005, but said eventually their focus shifted.

"We started shooting in the spring of 2006 thinking we would be making a 10 to 12 year project. We went to Africa with him and came back that fall. It was midterm elections. He was campaigning for all these candidates around the country and doing his book tour. It became very apparent that there was a candidacy in the offing," Sams said.

"All of a sudden we found ourselves doing a campaign documentary, much to Axelrod and Plouffe's chagrin. But, we eventually convinced them to let us keep shooting. So, I think we were lucky that we were able to start very early."

The creation of this film was not necessarily politically driven, Sams said.

"It was a great experience for us to be there. We did this more as a historical document. It's not about policy. It's not even really about strategy. It's about what happened with these campaign workers and how dedicated they were, and what the feeling was in the country at that time," she said.

After the film, a panel of experts discussed their experiences and memories of this monumental campaign. Candy Crowley, CNN chief political correspondent and anchor of "State of the Union with Candy Crowley" described the political climate during the 2008 Democratic Primary.

"We went into the campaign thinking Hillary Clinton was going to win because she had the name, she had the machine, and she had the money. That was so in everyone's brain that, when you saw what was going on [Obama gaining momentum], you almost negated it in some ways. There was always some excuse for why it was."

Crowley said despite most people's belief that Clinton would secure the Democratic nomination; everywhere she went on Obama's campaign tour there was electricity in the air. "The crowds were amazing," she said.

"You can drum up a crowd, but you cannot drum up the kind of passion that you saw all along the way for Barack Obama. I told people all the time, if you went to a Barack Obama rally, people would come out and say, oh my God, I'm so inspired. He makes me believe again. I just feel like the country could really be different. Things would be so wonderful, and he's so great," Crowley said.

"Then you would go to a Hillary Clinton rally, and people would come out and say, she's so smart. That was the difference between the two campaigns. He was lightning in a bottle."

Kevin Madden, a former National Press Secretary and Senior Communications Strategist for Mitt Romney's 2008 campaign and one of the panelists at Wednesday's event, said campaign tactics are far from what they used to be.

"Campaigns, a long time ago, used to be one press secretary, one campaign manager, and the news was delivered at 6:30 at night and at 6:30 in the morning on the door step. That's gone now."

Madden said the Obama campaign's use of new communication tactics was a contributing factor to his success.

"Going beyond the 250 people in the room and delivering a message to 250,000 people via their Web site, or via YouTube and social media, I think that was pretty ground breaking. A lot of these things are still tactics. You still have to have a strong, compelling message, a really good organization, and a fantastic candidate to make it work. But I agree, [future campaigns] are going to get so much faster."

Even though last Wednesday's event brought back some heart-warming memories for many in the audience, overall the night was bitter-sweet. With such enthusiasm and voter turnout for Obama's election, it seemed ironic that this screening was sparsely attended, with only about 75 people in-house, leaving many seats in the theater empty. Although it was a cold December night, one couldn't help but wonder whether the low turnout was a reflection of the public's growing disconnect to the passion that once fueled President Obama's campaign.

Sharon Ford, a 59-year-old Obama supporter, art materials store manager, and graduate student at The George Washington University said she came to the event to get back in touch with the passion she felt two years ago.

"I wanted to get that feeling back, because I don't feel it's there anymore in the country."

Ford admits that, in her mind, not everything has gone according to plan, but said that she will continue to support the President in 2012 should he seek reelection.

"When he ran he didn't say it was going to be easy. He didn't say he would have all the answers, but it seems people have forgotten that. It's amnesia."