2 New Films Explore Obama's Challenges

A year after he was elected, President Barack Obama faces a stern test: living up to the memories of his own campaign. Two movies and a book out this week recount that saga and implicitly pose some questions: Whatever happened to the guy who seemed so dazzling, confident, and convincing? Why has a campaign so laser-focused become a presidency that sometimes seems all but overrun by its own ambitious agenda? And did we really know the candidate we thought we saw? (Click here to follow Howard Fineman).(Article continued below...)

HBO's documentary By the Peoplemakes its debut Tuesday night. It offers two hours of behind-the-scenes footage of Obama's crusade, from its earliest moments in Iowa to the final victory suite. The candidate throughout is ice cool (but for one teary moment); his staff is meticulous and driven (but in a good way); the young volunteers are inspired and inspiring.

The laudatory if unsurprising portrait is matched in book form by the manager of that campaign, David Plouffe. He is out with The Audacity to Win. It, too, portrays a candidate as discerning and in charge. Obama, in Plouffe's narrative, distances himself from the ravings of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright by calmly—and quickly—writing a speech on the history of race.

The third part of this coincidental triple bill is Poliwood, a contemplative documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Barry Levinson. It airs on Showtime, starting Monday. It features no inside access, and instead depicts Obama's mastery of image making, and wonders aloud about the process that led to his victory. Following a theme he explored in the movie Wag the Dog, Levinson muses on-camera that celebrity, television, and politics conspire to confect candidates whose real qualities we can never know. "They've blurred the lines between truth and reality," he says. In politics "you can create a character just like you create a character in a movie … It's all theater."

Maybe so, but the Obama portrayed in HBO's By the People seemed genuine enough to me, and I have covered the man since he arrived in the U.S. Senate in 2005. The film, shot by the indefatigable team of Amy Rice and Alicia Sams, shows a cool customer, and, so far as I know, he is. Their access was not total. Perhaps there were moments of closed-door panic, anger, and confusion. If so, we don't ever see them.

But the very smoothness of the campaign makes you wonder whether that same confidence and focus prevails now, in the Oval Office. If a campaign is checkers, running the country is three-dimensional chess. As ubiquitous and ambitious as the president is, he doesn't exude quite the sense of command that he did in that nearly perfectly run campaign. Maybe the campaign itself magnified his best qualities and obscured others: a tendency perhaps to overthink, or overeach, or overdo; to regard his mere presence as the Answer.

Obama's campaign in many ways was about him, and little else. He was "the change," even though he said "we" were the change. And that was, at the time, an attractive, compelling narrative. His personal story was an inspiring one; his campaign became a positive narrative of a positive narrative. "It's all about storytelling," Levinson says on camera in his own film, which was made in conjunction with the Creative Coalition. "If you find the right way to sell the story—that becomes the story." Levinson says this as his film shows footage of Obama and his family on the Roman-style stage of the Denver convention.

At another point, a CNN marketing expert praises the campaign's "design and branding." The savvy Obama operation, he says, used icons, type fonts, and merchandise that "young, enthusiastic persons would want to wear on their heads or on their T shirts." It was a campaign as fashion statement: Obama the brand.

One year later, we are way beyond the T-shirt stage. The two documentaries are worth watching in tandem. One is a reminder of the hope Obama generated; the other is a reminder that there are no sure things in life, especially in politics.