Born to Run—for President

How did Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen travel a thunder road to the political promised land? Luther Rice Fellow Maureen Rafter studied the ties that bind the president and the Boss.
March 13, 2024

In her Luther Rice project, senior Maureen Rafter details how Bruce Springsteen (left) and Barack Obama teamed for campaign magic.

It’s a partnership born in the USA. Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen. A Black man from the shores of Hawaii and a white man from the swamps of Jersey. One crashed a wrecking ball through racial barriers, the other powered a chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected rise to rock and roll stardom. A president and a boss.

And while the ties that bind the statesman and the singer have held for years—from standing side-by-side at presidential campaign rallies to collaborating on books and podcasts—senior American studies and music major Maureen Rafter said the pair represent more than just Democratic glory days.

In her Luther Rice Undergraduate Fellowship project, “Rock the Vote: Barack Obama’s Sonic Identity in Rock Campaign Music,” Rafter concluded that the Obama-Springsteen team is among the most unique cultural partnerships in U.S. presidential history.

Stringing together hours of CSPAN and YouTube footage along with scholarly research in disciplines like musicology, political science and communications studies, Rafter revealed how their cultural and political duet introduced Obama to a broader voting audience and propelled Springsteen to national political prominence.

“Rock and Springsteen allowed Obama to simultaneously appeal to a different demographic while forming a sense of presidential identity based on preconceived notions of who a president was,” Rafter said. In turn, Springsteen became “essentially the band leader of the Democratic Party” through his continued association with Obama.

“They are sealing their legacies together,” she said.

Tramps Like Us

Rafter’s Luther Rice research allowed her to revisit the soundtrack of her childhood—when Obama was making history on Pennsylvania Avenue and Springsteen was writing guitar anthems on E Street.

Maureen Rafter
American studies and music major Maureen Rafter combined her love of songs and politics for her project. (Photo: Caitlin Oldham)

Growing up in Maryland, her mom, a music teacher, taught her classical chords while her dad, a baby boomer, raised her on classic rock. “I was playing Bach and Beethoven for an hour at my piano lessons—and then my dad would pick me up and we’d blast Bruce in the car,” she said. “That spirit is alive in my research.”

At GW, Rafter tuned into music and cultural studies—like Professor of English and American Studies Gayle Wald’s course on The World of Bob Dylan and a freshman seminar by Associate Professor of Musicology Loren Kajikawa on class, music and politics. Her Luther Rice project built on her research into musical genres in contemporary presidential campaigns. She initially explored whether candidates tailored their playlists to different audiences—walking on stage to country music in red states, for example. Kajikawa, her Luther Rice faculty advisor, encouraged her to narrow her focus to one candidate (Obama) and one genre (rock).

“By exploring how popular music plays a role in the construction of presidential identity, Maureen’s Luther Rice Fellowship project demonstrates how perspectives from the arts and humanities can provide unique insight into electoral politics,” Kajikawa said.

Springsteen was just a back-up player in Rafter’s original concept. But the more she dove into Obama’s political soundscape, the more she realized the Boss was the campaign front man.

“It became clear from the start that there was a very strong—and very intentional—relationship between the Obama campaign and Bruce Springsteen,” she noted. “They were tied in ways that we really hadn’t seen in the past.”

From Badlands to the Promised Land

Presidential candidates have long linked their campaigns to pop music theme songs—from FDR using “Happy Days Are Here Again” to signal recovery from the Great Depression to Bill Clinton playing Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking about Tomorrow)” to project images of a prosperous future. Hillary Clinton featured the Katy Perry hit “Roar” in her 2016 rallies, but it was mostly designed to “set a vibe” and reflect a female empowerment message, Rafter said.

Springsteen’s presence on the campaign trail, Rafter noted, gave Obama more than a theme song. A freshman senator from Illinois, Obama came into the 2008 campaign as an unknown to many demographics—including white working-class voters who might have backed his more traditionalist war-hero opponent John McCain. “For 200 years prior to 2008, the U.S. presidency was associated with white masculinity,” Rafter noted. “Springsteen provided [Obama] with proximity to that world.”

The Obama campaign gambled that Springsteen’s Americana lyrics spoke to the blue-collar “tramps like us” who punched a time clock and kept faith in their vision of the American dream—even if they were stymied by the system’s “death traps” and “suicide raps.”

“They saw themselves in Springsteen’s characters,” Rafter said.

For Springsteen, the partnership cemented his status as a political activist as well as a music icon. It also added a layer of racial legitimacy to his persona, much like his pairing with saxophonist Clarence Clemons swayed Black audience to embrace his E Street Band. Both friendships “prove to people that he means what he says—that he’s the real deal,” Rafter explained.

In today’s political landscape, however, Rafter said candidates increasingly turn to social media platforms like TikTok for cultural relevance. And while Taylor Swift famously baked Biden- Harris cookies in 2020, celebrities now largely attach themselves to causes instead of candidates, like singer Bad Bunny advocating for social justice or Leonardo DiCaprio promoting climate change initiatives.

Meanwhile, Rafter plans to publish her research in the GW Undergraduate Review this spring. She is also scheduled to present her findings at the International Association for the Study of Popular Music Conference in Philadelphia.

And she has two other items on her setlist: After graduation she hopes to pursue a PhD in musicology. And she vows to finally see a Springsteen concert with her dad. A scheduled D.C. show was canceled last year, but Rafter is undeterred. She’s taking inspiration from one of her favorite Boss tunes: No Surrender.

“One way or another, we’ll get to a show together,” she said.