Obama for President, “Children”

  • Ad Title: “Children”
  • Ad Sponsor: Obama for America
  • Issue of Focus: Mitt Romney’s Education Proposals
  • Type of Advertisement: Negative Issue Advertisement
  • Broadcast Locations: Ohio, Virginia
  • Release Date: August 22, 2012 (on television and YouTube)
  • Length: 32 seconds
  • Link to Advertisement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncjPBUW314c

Transcript of “Children”

(Transcribed by Michael Steudeman)

Barack Obama: I’m Barack Obama, and I approve this message.

Kevin: Some of our children’s greatest experience has been in the smaller classrooms.

Voiceover: But Mitt Romney says class sizes don’t matter, and he supports Paul Ryan’s budget, which could cut education by 20%.

Kevin: You can’t do this by shoving thirty, thirty-five people in a class and just teaching to some test.

Caroline: These are all issues that really he, personally, cannot relate to. To be able to afford an education; to want the very best public education system for your children.

Analysis of “Children”

Michael Steudeman, University of Maryland

Ad Context

As one of the few advertisements explicitly addressing the issue of education in the general election campaign, Obama for America’s “Children” addresses key areas of contention in American education discourse: teaching to the test, class sizes, and cuts to education. To contextualize this advertisement, this analysis will first consider the discourse around K-12 education reform and the candidates’ positions in that conversation.

Education is embraced as a vehicle of opportunity whereby students can achieve the American dream. Walter Fisher describes the “American Dream” narrative as two concurrent myths: one individualistic, one egalitarian. The individualistic myth implies that all Americans, no matter their circumstances, can succeed through hard work and effort; the egalitarian myth implies that this success relies on a collective effort: it takes a village. [1] Regardless of which myth a political figure relies upon in political appeals, education provides resources of possibility that animate either perspective. For those who emphasize individual responsibility and accountability, education functions as a great equalizer. Education provides opportunity; the individual, in turn, must embrace it. For those embracing the egalitarian position that society must pull together, schools become a place to allocate resources to cultivate ambitions of creating a more equitable society. Education therefore serves as a strategic point of overlap in these competing myths of America—and a key term for political candidates participating in what Kenneth Burke calls the “‘stealing back and forth’ of symbols.” [2] Emphasizing this point, Margaret J. Marshall considers education to be a highly contested space of meaning in American cultural life. [3]

Barack Obama has given education considerable emphasis during his first term. His major education initiative, Race to the Top, grounds his claim that he has balanced the need for accountability with the need to provide assistance to educators pursuing goals of equity. By adopting charter schools, pursuing stricter standards, and other “data-based” solutions to education issues, states can “win” funds from the federal government. This strategy, according to Obama, brings the two sides of the education reform debate into balance: “What we want to do is raise standards,” Obama stated shortly after the Race to the Top program went into effect, “but also provide the kinds of best practices, with money behind it, that evidence shows allows every child to meet these standards.” [4] While the approach departs from certain aspects of George W. Bush-era policies, key Democratic organizations have criticized it as an extension of the conservative market-logic of No Child Left Behind. For instance, the initiative drew criticism from the National Education Association for excessively rewarding states for adopting performance pay and permitting charter schools. [5] Nonetheless, when it comes to election endorsements, Obama retains teachers’ union support against the Romney/Ryan ticket. [6] In short, Obama’s position lies in an ambiguous and difficult-to-typify space between competing educational dogmas.

As a narrower component of the education issue, the issue of class size is a particular point of contention. In August, Obama’s Executive Office released a report entitled “Investing in Our Future: Returning Teachers to the Classroom.” This report—released directly from the White House, rather than the Department of Education—laments the loss of 300,000 education jobs and a 4.6 percent increase in the student-teacher ratio since 2009. [7] The report \ calls on Congress to act to secure teacher employment. In emphasizing class size, this report ran counter to statements from Obama’s own Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. In 2010, Duncan spoke before the American Enterprise Institute and suggested that schools might strategically increase class sizes to cope with budget cuts. [8] Echoing some of Duncan’s statements, Mitt Romney argued before a panel of educators in May that data collected while he was governor in Massachusetts indicated little-to-no correlation between class size and student test scores. [9]

The immediate data on the election suggest that Obama has a slight advantage on the issue of education. A Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll in August revealed that 49 percent of polled Americans believed Obama to be more capable of strengthening public education, whereas only 44 percent favored Romney. [10] Against this backdrop of apparent support, Obama released the “Children” advertisement on August 22, 2012 in key swing states of Ohio and Virginia. [11]

Ad Assumptions: Viewer Reasoning

Assumption 1: A candidate’s personal experience determines their ability to “relate” on an issue. Caroline, toward the advertisement’s end, states that Romney “cannot relate to” wanting a strong public education. The important assumption embedded in this claim is that, based on something about what Mitt Romney has experienced, which is now intrinsic to who Romney is, viewers can draw a conclusion about Romney’s ability to identify with normal voters. Here, the advertisement points to something “missing” from Romney’s identity. In doing so, it assumes that viewers have some common sense view that candidates can have identities, and that those identities can cohere—or not cohere—with their own. [12]

Assumption 2: Viewers draw inferences based on disparate information provided in an advertisement. The advertisement’s primary claims are presented without explicit logical linkages. This is a classic example of enthymematic reasoning, wherein the rhetor provides a minor premise and major premise and the audience is expected to draw the conclusion.

Premise 1: Mitt Romney does not believe class sizes matter.

Premise 2: Mitt Romney would cut funding to education.

Conclusion: Mitt Romney’s education cuts would remove teachers and boost class sizes.

Note that the advertisement does not explicitly state this linkage. Kevin says, “Some of our children’s greatest experience has been in the smaller classrooms,” and “You can’t do this by shoving thirty, thirty-five people in a class and just teaching to some test.” He does not directly relate Romney’s proposed budget cuts to class sizes. The link is implied; the audience must arrive at the connection on its own. Because federal cuts to education funding would be administered by state and local governments, it is challenging to directly draw a causal relationship between a Romney/Ryan budget plan and the eventual consequences of any education cost. By reasoning through enthymeme, the advertisement avoids making an indefensible claim. More importantly, it makes a fundamental assumption about viewer reasoning: that when viewers reason enthymematically, they participate in the construction of the argument and therefore feel greater satisfaction with its conclusion.

Ad Assumptions: Beliefs about Education

The advertisement posits two key claims about the nature of education itself: 1) that small class sizes provide a better experience, and 2) that placing over thirty students in a room and “teaching to some test” is inherently problematic. These claims, stated without any evidentiary backing, indicate an assumption about how viewers see education. First, “Children” assumes that viewers want their children in a smaller classroom in which the teacher can provide more individualized attention. Second, they assume that viewers will want more for their children than test-taking ability, but also more complex—in educational parlance, “higher-order thinking”—skills that require deeper one-on-one educator involvement.

This marks perhaps the most surprising set of assumptions made by the advertisement. As Kendall R. Phillips has chronicled, the discourse of how best to assess children has raged for decades. Constructivist arguments for performance-based assessment—which require smaller class sizes and more individualized attention—arose in the early 1980s in a backlash against emphasis on multiple choice testing. A resulting discursive tension has unfolded between the proponents of standardized assessment and the advocates of more complex “real world” performance-based assessments that trust a teacher’s integrity and require greater teacher involvement. [13] Divisiveness on the issue of testing continues today: the same Phi Kappa Delta/Gallup survey cited earlier found that 52 percent of those surveyed believe that teacher evaluations should “include how well a teacher’s students perform on standardized tests,” compared to 47 percent who disagree. [14] By unequivocally stressing the “class size” and “teaching to the test” claims, the “Children” advertisement assumes that parents will agree with the sentiment that smaller class sizes result in better individualized attention and more real-world forms of assessment.

In other words, despite the growing push for reforms like charter schools and test-based evaluations, this advertisement instead chooses to tack back toward more traditional positions on education: small class sizes, not “teaching to the test,” and school funding. In the process, it assumes these positions still hold some currency in people’s thinking about education.

Ad Content: “Public” Education and Community

The definition of the traditional public school, Chris Lubienski argues, has become contested. In the traditional definition developed during the common school movement, “public” schooling has involved public governance and deliberative bodies like school boards. In the definition forged by advocates of charter schools, “public” simply means “publicly funded”—regardless of whether the school is communally operated. [15] Obama’s Race to the Top program seems to emphasize the second definition. When Caroline in “Children” uses the phrase “public school system,” however, she calls upon the first. The advertisement eschews the current discourse of reform to instead hearken back to vision of schools as communal and teachers as autonomous.

The advertisement’s two speakers draw from the ethos of family. “Some of our children’s greatest experiences have been in the smaller classrooms,” Kevin states, before looking over to Caroline next to him. Presumably, they are husband and wife—emphasized through the word “our” children. Through the lamentations of a family unit, the advertisement posits the education as an extension of community. The couple sits in front of a swing set, evoking a scene of children playing—but no children are there. They speak in somber tones over equally somber music. The result is a sense of nostalgia, a sense of something lost. Our students had smaller classrooms, Kevin suggests, but under Romney they may not. The convergence of these two concepts—family and small class size—evokes a traditional American myth of the “little red schoolhouse.” As Ronald Lee and Karen King Lee argue, this cultural myth draws, in part, from “the physical smallness of early American schools,” which hearkens to a “simpler communal life.” [16] By tapping into the cultural history of education as a “small,” communally-rooted extension of family, the advertisement sidesteps modern reform arguments to invoke a nostalgic vision of education’s purpose.

Ad Content – Out-of-Touch Mitt Romney

Contained within the advertisement is a core assumption: candidates have identities, and their identities dictate their ability to “relate” to viewers on campaign issues. Building on this assumption, “Children” argues that Mitt Romney’s wealth, privilege, and experiences make him incapable of identifying with viewers on this subject.

Caroline declares that education is an issue Mitt Romney “personally cannot relate to.” The focus of the advertisement has now become the candidate’s character. The advertisement relies subtly on gender stereotypes to make this transition. As Shawn Parry-Giles and Trevor Parry-Giles argue, candidate wives in presidential campaign films often embody “the traditional construction of women as wives, mothers, and homemakers largely concerned with private rather than public matters.” [17] In “Children,” Caroline taps into the same sense of hegemonic masculinity that assigns women the role of empathic caretaker.  The advertisement features three speakers: Kevin, the narrator, and Caroline. Kevin speaks experientially about class sizes. The narrator, in a deep “voice of God,” gives the empirical facts about Romney. But Caroline speaks when the ad shifts to Romney’s ability to empathize with viewers or want more for children. The cultural bias that men have technical expertise while women have emotional expertise is thereby evoked, tapping into cultural ascriptions to enhance the ethos of the message.

This character attack also relies on a visual argument. Shortly after Caroline begins speaking, the camera cuts to Mitt Romney standing directly beside an airplane that reads “TRUMP.” Featuring this image establishes a connection between Romney and billionaire Republican primary opponent Donald Trump. A further cluster of associations lie embedded in the image, brought about through the comparison: the wealthy businessman walking down the staircase to his own private jet; the suit-wearing executive; the child of privilege who likely went to private school, sends his own children to private school, and is out-of-touch with those who enroll their children in public school. The voiceover from Caroline and the image symbiotically construct an argument that Romney cannot relate to a “normal” family’s educational needs.

The image is then further sharpened through juxtaposition. The next shot—a bright, colorful image from inside of a school—features a line of children raising their hands enthusiastically while waiting in line in a hallway. This is an environment Romney does not know; an environment completely outside the realm of the wealthy private jet-flyer’s experience. In the fade-away transition from Romney to the schoolteacher, the two men, for a brief second, stand side-by-side in stark contrast:

In constructing Romney as out-of-touch, the advertisement follows through on its assumption that a candidate’s experience and identity dictates his or her ability to see eye-to-eye with the public.

Reception of the Advertisement

Overall, much of the reaction concentrated on the dissonance between this advertisement’s appeal to more traditional visions of education and the stated reform policies of Race to the Top and Obama’s Education Department. Education Week’s Alyson Klein considered a few key ambiguities in the advertisement. Klein concentrates particularly on contradictions between Arne Duncan’s 2010 statements and the advertisement’s position on class size, the uncertainty surrounding precisely what impact the Romney/Ryan budget might have on education, and the absence of class size from Obama’s own list of priorities in Race to the Top legislation. [18] PolitiFact.com rated the advertisement’s claim about class sizes as “true,” noting that this particular claim aligns with Romney’s own stated positions. [19] Yet CNN.com’s fact checkers critiqued Obama’s claims, suggesting that they mislead viewers from the argument Romney tried to make when he discussed the results of his Massachusetts survey. [20]

While the advertisement itself did not generate much reaction from the Romney campaign, the education issue rose to media prominence when the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike. Reacting to the strike, both Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan released statements siding with Chicago Mayor and former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in opposition to the strike. [21] After the strike settled, Barack Obama responded to Romney’s comments:

All across the country people want results… It was very important, I think, for Mayor Emanuel to say, ‘Let’s step up our game,’ and it was important for the teachers union to also say, ‘Let’s make sure we’re not just blaming teachers for a lot of big problems out there. Let’s make sure we’ve got the resources.’ So I’m glad it was resolved, but I do think that from the perspective of Democrats, we can’t just sit on the status quo or say that money’s the only issue. Reform is important also. [22]

Obama stresses both components of the “American dream” myth here: he appeals to an egalitarian need to provide teachers with resources while embracing the reformist ethic of accountability. The resulting hybrid places the president in the ambiguous space of backing policies from both unions and their opposition. The “Children” advertisement reflects these shifting fault-lines: it makes an appeal to traditional education issues in an era of corporate reform.


[1] Walter R. Fisher, Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action (Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1989), 148-149.

[2] Kenneth Burke, Attitudes toward History, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 141.

[3] Margaret J. Marshall, Contesting Cultural Rhetorics: Public Discourse and Education, 1890-1900 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995).

[4] Michael D. Shear and Nick Anderson, “President Obama Discusses New ‘Race to the Top’ Program,” Washington Post, July 23, 2009. Accessed September 30, 2012 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/23/AR2009072302938.html

[5] Nick Anderson, “Nation Digest: Teachers Union Criticizes Obama’s Schools Initiative,” Washington Post, August 22, 2009. Accessed September 30, 2012 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/21/AR2009082103638.html ; see also Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, “Obama Refuses to Budge on Race to the Top Education Reforms,” Christian Science Monitor, July 29, 2010, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Education/2010/0729/Obama-refuses-to-budge-on-Race-to-the-Top-education-reforms

[6] Despite criticisms of Race to the Top, labor unions such as the American Federation of Teachers have issued public statements backing Obama/Biden over Romney/Ryan. See Randi Weingarten, “AFT Statement on Romney Vice Presidential Selection,” American Federation of Teachers, August 11, 2012. Accessed September 30, 2012 at http://www.aft.org/newspubs/press/2012/081112.cfm

[7] The Executive Office of the President, “Investing in Our Future: Returning Teachers to the Classroom,” The White House, August 2012. Accessed September 30, 2012 at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/Investing_in_Our_Future_Report.pdf

[8] Arne Duncan, “The New Normal: Doing More with Less — Secretary Arne Duncan’s Remarks at the American Enterprise Institute,” The U.S. Department of Education, November 17, 2010. Accessed September 30, 2012 at http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/new-normal-doing-more-less-secretary-arne-duncans-remarks-american-enterprise-institut

[9] Sarah Huisenga, “Romney Counters Pushback on Education Ideas at Urban Charter School,” CBSNews.com, May 24, 2012. Accessed September 30, 2012 at http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-57441105-503544/romney-encounters-pushback-on-education-ideas-at-urban-charter-school/

[10] Allison Terry, “Poll: Americans Favor Obama Over Romney for Strengthening Public Schools,” Christian Science Monitor, August 22 2012. Accessed September 30, 2012 at http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Elections/President/2012/0822/Poll-Americans-favor-Obama-over-Romney-for-strengthening-public-schools

[11] David Jackson, “Obama Education Ad Targets Ohio, Virginia,” USA Today, August 22, 2012. Accessed September 30, 2012 at http://content.usatoday.com/communities/theoval/post/2012/08/obama-education-ad-targets-ohio-virgina/1#.UGil2k1ZWSo

[12] For a discussion of the ways that the concept of identity is taken-for-granted in “commonsense” language, see Dana Anderson, Identity’s Strategy: Rhetorical Selves in Conversion (Columbia, SC: 2007), 1-19.

[13] Kendall R. Phillips, Testing Controversy: A Rhetoric of Educational Reform (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2004).

[14] Poll data cited in Valerie Strauss, “Poll: Americans’ Views on Public Education,” Washington Post: The Answer Sheet, August 22, 2012. Accessed September 30, 2012 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/poll-americans-views-on-public-education/2012/08/22/37203c5a-ebcf-11e1-aca7-272630dfd152_blog.html

[15] Chris Lubienski, “Redefining ‘Public’ Education: Charter Schools, Common Schools, and the Rhetoric of Reform,” Teachers College Record 103:4 (2001): 634-666.

[16] Ronald Lee and Karen King Lee, “Multicultural education in the Little Red Schoolhouse: A Rhetorical Exploration of Ideological Justification and Mythic Repair,” Communication Studies 49:1 (1998): 5.

[17] Shawn Parry-Giles and Trevor Parry-Giles, “Gendered Politics and Presidential Image Construction: A Reassessment of the ‘Feminine Style,’” Communication Monographs 63 (1996): 346.

[18] Alyson Klein, “Fact Checking Obama’s Class-Size Ad,” Education Week, August 22, 2012. Accessed September 30, 2012 at http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2012/08/fact_checking_obamas_class_siz.html

[19] “Obama Ad Says Class Sizes ‘Don’t Matter’ to Romney,” Politifact.com, August 23, 2012. Accessed September 30, 2012 at http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/aug/23/barack-obama/obama-ad-says-class-sizes-dont-matter-romney/

[20] Tom Foreman and Eric Marrapodi, “Fact Check: Obama education Ad Misleading,” CNN.com, August 23, 2012. Accessed September 30, 2012 from http://articles.cnn.com/2012-08-23/politics/politics_fact-check-education_1_class-size-smaller-classes-schools-with-small-classes

[21] Justin Sink, “Ryan: ‘We Stand’ with Emanuel in Fight with Chicago Teachers Union,” TheHill.com, September 11, 2012. Accessed September 30, 2012 at http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/248649-paul-ryan-rahm-emanuel-is-right-on-teachers-strike-

[22] Quoted in Lisa Balde, “Obama: Romney Politicized Chicago Teacher Strike,” NBCChicago.com, September 25, 2012. Accessed September 30, 2012 at http://www.nbcchicago.com/blogs/ward-room/Obama-Romney-Politicized-Chicago-Teacher-Strike-171180751.html