There's no question that the President -- in town this evening to debate Mitt Romney -- is a huge music fan. From quoting Sam Cooke during his '08 acceptance speech to randomly singing Al Green verses during a fundraiser to citing Stevie Wonder as being responsible for his marriage, Obama is far and away American pop music's finest presidential ambassador. So it's all the greater mystery that he continues to employ U2's "City Of Blinding Lights" as his campaign theme song. In 2008 it was the ideal anthem of hope and change, but in 2012 the lyrics read like a conservative strategist's wet dream.
It's indisputable that the Dems have a leg up when it comes to rock star support. While Reagan's erroneous use of Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." in 1984 and Michelle Bachman's on-the-nose employ of Tom Petty's "American Girl" earned them both public derision from the original songwriters, it is impossible to hear "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" without thinking of the promise of Bill Clinton in 1992, or to recall the heated Bush versus Kerry elections without considering the left-leaning Vote for Change tour.
All this momentum was at Obama's back in 2008 when he carefully selected a Big Chill style soundtrack for his campaign rallies, a playlist that included gems from Jackie Wilson, the O'Jays and Curtis Mayfield. All of these boomer classics would get the crowd properly softened and cranked up while they waited in long lines and in hard plastic seats. The inspirational tension would reach its zenith when "City of Blinding Lights" would fall from the speakers, that arpeggio guitar and descending piano chords raining down like saccharine confetti as Obama would make his entrance onto the stage.
Neon heart day glow eyes A city lit by fireflies They're advertising in the skies For people like us... Oh you look so beautiful tonight
The song pulls off that tricky balance of emoting a nostalgia for the past while generating hopefulness for the future -- which was the ideal feeling for Democratic voters in 2008. The combination of losing Bush and gaining Obama was a kind of political speedball, like getting out of a bad relationship only to rebound into something better than you could've ever expected. The love for this previously unknown candidate was explosive, and the way "Blinding Lights" was used to supplement that love was as expertly orchestrated as any million dollar U2 concert.
I miss you when you're not around I'm getting ready to leave the ground
Obama has continued using the song in his 2012 campaign, hoping to rouse that same fetishistic devotion voters had for him four years previous. Similarly, Republicans have maintained a familiar offense strategy to the one they had in 2008: Characterize Obama as overly idealistic and impractical, someone who sees the world through rose-colored glasses. But even though they now have something tangible to nail that premise to -- a sluggish economy -- voters still aren't convinced. And if the GOP only took the time to examine the lyrics of Obama's campaign theme song, what they'd find is the ultimate apex of their entire strategy.
The more you know the less you feel Some pray for others steal Blessings are not just for the ones who kneel -- luckily
Musically, "City of Blinding Lights" began to take form during U2's writing of the 1997 euro-trash album, Pop. Though lyrically the song took shape after Bono's existential moment with a photo of his younger self in 1982. "I went to see Anton Corbin's exhibition, a museum show in Holland, and he hadn't told me but there was a room full of giant photographs of the band, and a lot of me from when I was very young," the U2 singer wrote of the song.
"Then I saw this photograph -- I guess I would have been 20, 21 -- getting into a helicopter, the first time I'd ever been in a helicopter...the face was so open and so empty of complications, and so the naivety was there and it was so powerful. . . . Back then I didn't know how powerful that naivety was."
The song is divided thematically, half written as a love letter to his thirty year companion, wife Ali Hewson, while the other half is composed as an observance of youth and how age can wither a man's convictions. The words of spousal idolatry fit well within the emotional aspirations of a political campaign ("I've seen you walk unafraid"), yet Bono's musings on adolescence carry ominous reflections of Obama's first term and his weaknesses as a candidate.
The more you see the less you know The less you find out as you go I knew much more then than I do now
Of the many unkept promises candidate Obama made 2008 (Guantanamo, immigration reform, unemployment peaking at under 8 percent), most have been explained by his campaign as incomplete due to Republican obstructionism, while many right-leaning critics would argue that Obama's idealism -- gleaned from his Kenyan father and his time as a community organizer -- are responsible for his failures as a president.
"Obama's weak response to the attacks on our embassies shows he is truly the weakest commander-in-chief since Jimmy Carter," recently said Republican Congressman Allen West, which he followed up with a Facebook campaign to "LIKE if you agree Obama's naïve foreign policy has truly made the world a more dangerous place."
Don't look before you laugh Look ugly in a photograph . . . Can you see the beauty inside of me? What happened to the beauty I had inside of me
If it weren't for his exceptional new poll numbers, comparisons to Jimmy Carter's failures in 1980 would fit nicely next to the Obama campaign of today.
Foreign policy is perhaps where Obama is weakest with his base -- many '08 supporters who celebrated his anti-Iraq War position now bemoan his drone strikes and increased military budget -- just as many saw Carter's handling of the Iranian hostage crisis as indicative of his presidential shortcomings.
But instead of leaning hard on this -- giving them a shot at converting '08 Obama voters -- the Romney camp have been going all-in on jobs, attempting to make the entire campaign a referendum on the president's handling of the sluggish economy.
Obviously this strategy hasn't been working. Polls show that fewer voters blame Obama for the bad numbers than his Republican predecessor. And fewer still believe Romney has the middle class' interests at heart when designing his fiscal policies.
With only five weeks remaining until the election, the Romney camp is going to have to go for the nucleus of the Obama campaign, the nerve center -- set controls for the heart of the sun. In order to both inflate the image of Obama as a hippie Marxist in the eyes of the right and nurture his image as a pawn of the military industrial complex in the eyes of the left, the GOP will have to expose and spin the anthem of the president's campaign as a subliminal confession of his core weakness as a candidate.
But in order to do that, they'll have to contend with an icon even more holy, beloved and culturally relevant to liberals than the president himself: Bono.