Obama in America

September 28, 2009
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(Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Elle magazine.)

During last year’s US presidential campaign, the opposition portrayed Barack Obama as nothing more than a shallow celebrity, an empty pop star like Britney Spears or Paris Hilton, orating to throngs of un-American German fans in Berlin. He was, they suggested, long on glamour and bright of smile but short on substance, experience and depth.

It turns out the opposition was half right.

Obama is still a star, placed on the cover of glossy magazines and cheap supermarket tabloids. Entire sections have been created in bookstores to hold his biographies and autobiographies, audiobooks, commemorative magazines, calendars, buttons, posters, virtually anything on which his face can be printed. Even dinner plates and coins with his image can be bought with a quick phone call and a credit card from television advertisers.

Not since Elvis died has there been such a rush to capitalize on the value of one man’s face. The frenzy is nicknamed Obamania, the excitement like Barackarama — and it’s not going away.

Yet the opposition was also half wrong. It is clear now that Obama has an abundance of substance and firmly held beliefs. The tide of soaring rhetoric that swept his campaign to the presidency does indeed run deep. The question now is whether that substance will help America sail nimbly ahead or whether it will cause America to sink further into a whirlpool of unemployment and despair.

If only the rivers of overflowing hope could be converted into rivers of capital liquidity, the world’s economic crisis might have ended when Obama became president on January 20. But the dam of politics ensures that nothing flows smoothly and the current economic crisis has increased the turbulence all around.

“We Are All Socialists Now,” read the cover of Newsweek magazine recently. It was not meant as reassuring news. In a country where most people are hell-bent on remaining as unlike the French as possible, the word Socialist conjures up images of confiscated property, secret police, controlled uniformity, and men with foreign accents, berets and scruffy beards.

Obama did not help himself when he remarked during the campaign that the American government should help “spread the wealth” among its citizens. “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” was the translation by some. Now, with the election passed, the political vitriol is increasing about as fast as the national debt.

The fact is, Obama saw it coming – everyone in America saw it coming. The Democrats, which were clear-cut favourites to control the White House and both houses of Congress, knew they would be attacked ceaselessly by opposing Republicans after they took office.

To help counter the anticipated onslaught, Obama made it well known that he was a fervent admirer of one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, who as a sensitive, thoughtful and eloquent leader, famously appointed both friends and foes into his administration, nicknamed a “Team of Rivals.” So Obama vowed to appoint several members from the Republican Party to senior positions in his administration. He even invited a Republican to his house to watch the Super Bowl.

When he declared victory after the election in November, Obama also carefully inserted Lincoln’s words into his speech: “We are not enemies, but friends,” he proclaimed, reaching out to his opponents. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Affection? A month after Lincoln said these words in 1861, we Americans began slaughtering each other by the tens of thousands in our Civil War.

But Lincoln, arguably our ugliest president, never had the smile and the style of Obama. He never, to my knowledge, appeared on the cover of a magazine kissing his notoriously demanding, and equally unattractive, wife. He did not have the mostly liberal media extolling his virtues and his historic achievements. He did not look good in gym shorts. And his three-point shot was nonexistent. Maybe thanks to this, no one expects bloodshed this time. But that does not mean the political fighting is any less pointed.

Some of the damage Obama has done to himself. It turned out his new Treasury Secretary had forgotten to pay some federal income taxes. Then his nominee for another position also lost his tax bill and withdrew from consideration. So did another nominee. And the person he picked for Commerce Secretary withdrew because of an investigation. And then his replacement suddenly dropped out as well.

Then there’s the economy. Unemployment is at the highest rate in 25 years. More than 4 million people have lost their jobs since the start of last year, more than 600,000 in Obama’s first full month. We passed nearly $800 billion in economic stimulus and the future still looks worse. Our new Treasury Secretary spoke for the first time about his bank rescue plan and bank stocks plummeted.

So shouldn’t Obama be blamed, even a little, for the market’s plunge since he took office? Shouldn’t he have some responsibility for the planned $1.75 trillion deficit his own budget calls for this year — nearly four times last year’s shortfall and roughly six times the entire GDP of Romania? Shouldn’t he be held accountable for the political missteps he made when choosing his cabinet secretaries? How about the fact that we are committing more than $7 trillion to stop a collapse of our own making? Shouldn’t the stench cling to him just a little?

Don’t be silly. We love him.

Yes, politics has a way of separating the farmer from his crops. When we love the farmer, the weather, or bad seeds, or maybe just evil spirits caused the crops to fail. When we hate the farmer, it’s his fault, and his fault alone, that the corn did not grow. Just ask George Bush.

Maybe it’s just that we finally have a president who can complete a sentence and keep it grammatically correct at the same time. Or maybe it’s that we have a president who we are not embarrassed to introduce to the rest of the world. Young, attractive, charming, eloquent, and oh, did we mention he’s also African-American? See how open-minded we are?

And if that’s not enough, Obama even appears to be honest. At least, he appears to appear to be honest, again like Abraham Lincoln, whose nickname “Honest Abe” is taught to every American schoolchild.

It was with refreshing candor, then, that after his choice for Commerce Secretary stepped aside, Obama explained simply: “I screwed up.” When asked if he had had a cigarette yet as president, the man who is trying to remove the nicotine stains from the finger on the nuclear button, thought for a second and then said he had not smoked on the White House grounds. Well, maybe that didn’t quite answer the question, but it’s certainly better than Clinton’s pathetic, finger-pointing denial: “I never had sex with that woman.”

Besides, we really cannot afford to see Obama fail, either as “Leader of the Free World,” as our Commander-in-Chief, or as the best marketing commodity we have had in years. We’re just not ready yet to tear down this matinee idol.

Consider a recent survey of the news stands. He’s on the cover of the March issue of Vanity Fair, together with a tease for Kate Winslet, Sean Penn, Meryl Streep and other Hollywood celebrities. He’s kissing his wife, Michelle, on the cover of Heart & Soul, a health and lifestyle magazine for African-Americans. On the cover of Men’s Journal, he is holding an American football and has been re-nicknamed “Jock in Chief” for his love of sports and afternoon basketball games. Even the adolescent humor magazine, Mad, had Obama on the cover, taking a satiric look at his “First 100 Minutes.” (“Minute 38: Screw with Secret Service agents by shouting out, ‘Hey, it’s almost prayer time, which way is Mecca?!’”)

The president’s family has also been thrown into the frenzy. Although it’s an unwritten rule in the press to leave the president’s children alone, stories about Malia and Sasha abound. Which private school are they attending? How much is their weekly allowance? Were you curious about how much their dresses cost? Did you see they were surprised with a new swing set? The company that makes Beanie Babies, a popular brand of stuffed animals and other characters, even launched two dark-skinned dolls named after the president’s two daughters. (It changed their names after the First Lady, Michelle, objected.)

As for Michelle, she’s a star unto herself. One day, listen to her on the daytime talk shows. The next day, see her reading to school children. Or serving lunch to poor people. Or gracing the cover of several glossies, “dishing” about life in the White House, even appearing with Oprah on the cover of O magazine. Then read the fashion reviews about Michelle’s sleeveless dress and her well-toned arms. Is she trying to look like Jacqueline Kennedy? Does she display her décolletage like Mrs. Lincoln?

Ok, so maybe things have gotten out of hand. When furniture retailer Ikea, a large US airline, and a popular ice cream maker all used Obama campaign themes to sell their brands, it was reported that White House lawyers even began looking at ways to protect the president’s image. In fact, beginning with Obama’s early interview with a Muslim network, then interviews with all major American networks, prime time addresses to the nation, a press conference, and his travels around the country to talk about his economic plan, there appears to be some concern he is getting too much media exposure.

Is that possible? A politician whose supporters worry he is getting too much attention, too much adoration, too much star treatment? Might Britney Spears and Paris Hilton finally take a hint? Can’t we just copyright Obama’s face and overcome the national debt by charging money every time someone uses it on a product? Couldn’t we have him stage a world tour and charge admission? Maybe three or four “farewell” tours would bring in the dollars. Or do we run the risk of devaluing even his image with too many product placements, like Starbucks and McDonalds?

Personally, I don’t really care. At least we still have a bit of capitalism on display – whether or not it only resides on the newsstands. No, my only hope is that if Obama insists on displaying a disarming sense of honesty, that we never hear again those three simple words: “I screwed up.”

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