Barack Obama was supposed to be the man whose “first class temperament” would usher in a new politics. That’s what Christopher Buckley told us. The very crease in his pant leg signaled a new day, or so believed David Brooks. Well, on Friday of last week that new day arrived, but it probably wasn’t what Obama’s “conservative” supporters expected.
Mr. I’ll Stop the Rise of the Seas handed the presidency to one of his predecessors on Friday. During a press conference in the White House briefing room, the President of the United States handed the bully pulpit over to Bill Clinton. Obama and Clinton had just held a closed door meeting regarding the Bush tax cut deal and presumably discussed what Obama must do now that he faces a Republican majority in the House. The pair of presidents decided to hold an impromptu press conference. A few minutes in, Obama walks out, leaving Clinton to hold court with the White House press corps.
Clinton hasn’t been POTUS now for about 10 years, but he showed that he’s still the wonk he always was, citing facts and figures and selling the Obama deal better than Obama has bothered to try. But Clinton’s performance isn’t the most important part of the story. The important parts are what Friday’s moment says and what it symbolizes. As a former President of the United States, Clinton is entitled to be addressed as “Mr. President,” and that’s of course how the press addressed him, which only added to Friday’s confusion: With Obama off to meet his wife and attend a Christmas party, Clinton got to play President for a Day.
Perhaps Obama was trying to get ahead of this whole silly “No Labels” thing, by shedding his own label: President of the United States.
Barack Obama is not a man who lacks understanding of imagery and symbolism. If anything, he rode to the presidency on the power of symbols and his own iconography.
That logo, which Bill Whittle brilliantly analyzed for PJTV a while back, adorns not just Obama’s campaign websites, but is the omnipresent flag of his personal political army, Organizing for America. Wherever you go within the Obama communications universe, you find that icon. The Democratic National Committee recently allowed itself to become an echo of the Barack Obama iconography effort.
So while Obama clearly understands and uses symbols and images to build and extend his power, he is also likely to misuse and even disrespect them.
Remember the Greek columns at the Democratic convention in Denver, in August 2008? For an inexperienced nominee seeking to lead the free world, that stage lent him authority, grandeur and power that his own biography didn’t offer on its own.
But it was more than a little over the top. It made him look like Caesar in a suit.
A month before that, in July 2008, candidate Obama delivered a speech in Berlin, Germany. Standing before the Victory Column, at the heart of the European Union, Obama declared himself a “fellow citizen of the world.” The moment symbolized, for Obama and his supporters, America’s emergence from the “go it alone” Bush years to reunite with the “international community.” But like the Greek columns at Invesco Field, Obama misappropriated the imagery. In his shallow, leftist worldview, Obama probably thought the angel atop the column represents peace on earth. The Victory Column symbolizes Prussian (read: German) martial prowess. It’s not a symbol of brotherly love, community and harmony, but of nationalism, warfare and conquest. It was entirely inappropriate to the message Obama went to Berlin to deliver. But it made for a cool U2 style backdrop.