You can tell a lot from a T-shirt.
We've just been perusing the "Runway to Win" collection – an assortment of shirts, bags, and other gear created for the Obama campaign by well-known fashion designers such as Tory Burch, Diane von Furstenberg, and Marc Jacobs, available for purchase on the campaign website.
The line (if you can call it that) was promoted this week at an Obama fundraiser by none other than Vogue editor Anna Wintour, one of the president's top bundlers. It ostensibly offers Obama supporters a chance to own an item of clothing by a top designer at a price far below what their wares normally fetch.
But if this is an effort to recapture some of the Obama "cool" of 2008, it feels oddly tin-eared.
At a time when millions of Americans are still facing serious economic hardship, a collection of $45 T-shirts and $75 tote bags by designers typically associated with the East Hampton set does not exactly scream empathy.
Here's the thing. Back in 2008, Obama shirts were actually cool. That iconic "HOPE" poster, designed by artist Shepard Fairey, sold hundreds of thousands of copies, wound up on shirts, mugs, and stickers, and, eventually, in the National Portrait Gallery.
But now that bloom is off the rose. Aspiration has been replaced by cynicism. As Jimmy Kimmel joked at the White House Correspondents Dinner, "Mr. President, remember when the country rallied behind you in hopes of a better tomorrow? That was hilarious."
By contrast, the in-your-face ironic collection of Mitt Romney shirts recently introduced by Urban Outfitters feels far more suited to these disillusioned times. The T-shirts aren't ostensibly promoting the candidate (though some bloggers have accused the retail giant – whose founder is a noted supporter of conservative causes – of sneaky subversive messaging). They make fun of Mr. Romney's squareness, and, by implication, the whole political process.
One shirt depicts Romney wearing make-up like Kiss's Gene Simmons, while another has the nonsensical slogan "2 Legit 2 Mitt," with the candidate in MC Hammer parachute pants. They're silly, but the message is also deeply cynical.
According to the store's website, the shirts reading: "Mitt is the [word rhyming with Mitt that we cannot print in a family newspaper]" have actually sold out.
Inevitably, Obama's message has been moving into more cynical territory, too. In Cleveland yesterday, he admitted "of course the economy isn’t where it needs to be. Of course we have a lot more work to do. Everybody knows that." If 2008 was about a post-partisan vision of unity, it seems 2012 may be about embracing the partisan divide. As Obama put it: "What’s holding us back is a stalemate in Washington between two fundamentally different views of which direction America should take. And this election is your chance to break that stalemate."
It may not be a slogan that lends itself easily to a T-shirt. But Hope 2.0 is clearly going to be a different kind of campaign. Now they just need some new gear.