By NANCY BENAC
WASHINGTON — Barack Obama reminisces about taking a wrong turn and getting lost. Fumbling to fold a map. Dashing to Kinko’s to copy campaign fliers.
The president’s re-election campaign increasingly is sounding like a nostalgia tour. His speeches stroll through elections past, serving up fond memories of his days running as a political unknown, identifying early political inspirations and reminding voters that, win or lose, this will be his last campaign after 13 appearances on the ballot since 1996.
“I’m term-limited,” he tells crowds — a flat statement of the obvious that always gets a laugh. “You get a little nostalgic and you start thinking about your first political campaigns.”
These are not the casual ad-libs of a candidate suddenly turning wistful, but a rhetorical device designed to transport Obama back to the days when he was the kind of ordinary guy voters felt they could relate to, long before he rode in limousines and flew on Air Force One.
“Sometimes I couldn’t find a parking spot and so I’d end up being late, and if it was raining I’d have to fumble with my umbrella and I’d come in kind of drenched,” Obama told a crowd in Oakland, Calif., earlier this week.
“There were these things called maps, because we did not have GPS,” he told a chuckling crowd in Portland, Ore., the next day. “And they were on paper, and you’d have to fold them. You’d unfold them and then trying to fold them back was really difficult.”
The unwritten subtext: I’m just like you, and my policies flow from our shared experiences. Mitt Romney, he’s a rich guy whose policies would benefit the elite.
“It’s the silver-spoon-in-his-mouth attack — more gently insinuated,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political rhetoric and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
It’s also a rejoinder to Romney’s own characterizations of Obama as isolated in the presidential bubble and out of touch with the economic concerns of ordinary Americans.
Obama uses his reminiscing riffs to trace a direct connection between his biography and those of the voters he met in early campaigns. The older couples, he says, reminded him of his grandfather who served in World War II and his grandmother who worked a bomber assembly line. The single moms, he says, reminded him of his own mother, who worked to put herself and her two kids through college. The working couples, he says, reminded him of his wife’s parents.
“I would be traveling and I’d meet people, and I’d say, you know what, their story is my story,” Obama told a crowd in Texas this month.
Robin Lakoff, a professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley, said Obama’s goal in getting “all personal, fuzzy-wuzzy and nostalgic” is to recreate an intimacy with voters. Lakoff, who reviewed Obama’s speeches and commented by email, said both the president’s Kenyan ancestry and his cool personality make it especially important for him to cement a personal connection to voters.
“That is not to say his self-revelations are false — I think they are genuine — but they are designed to do this particular essential job,” she said.
Framing the 2012 election as Obama’s last race also gives the campaign a way to conjure memories of Obama’s rise from political unknown to first African-American president, offering voters one last chance to be part of something historic.
“You guys not only inspired me, but you inspired each other,” Obama told a crowd in Iowa recently. “And you can still do that.”
Michelle Obama, too, is harking back to her husband’s early campaigns as she tries to get supporters energized for this one.
“I’ll always remember how, not long after Barack and I got married, the two of us would take a couple of our friends along to collect signatures for his very first campaign for the state Legislature” in Illinois, she said in a recent campaign video that shows wedding and early campaign photos. “We’d knock on doors, we’d get to know our neighbors and talk to folks about the issues right on their front step or even in their living room.”
Beyond the political calculations, any career politician making a last run for office is bound to get sentimental.
President Bill Clinton did in 1996. President George W. Bush much less so in 2004, although Laura Bush played that role.
At 50, Obama has been running for something every few years since 1996, when he was first elected to the Illinois Senate. The only loss on his record came in a 2000 primary challenge to a Democratic congressman.
If he’s re-elected, Obama is likely to be out campaigning in two years for his party’s congressional candidates and in four years for the Democratic presidential nominee.
But he says the name Barack Obama won’t be on another ballot.
“He knows this is his last hurrah,” says Lakoff, “and, as awful as campaigning must be to a sane human being, it is exciting, it is self-affirming. You get a kind of glow and aura that you can’t get in any other way.”