At the Wall Street Journal, former Bush speechwriter Bill McGurn refers to “our Looking Glass Beltway. In this universe, a bigger stage is often the solution for a lack of substance. Put it this way: Without the backdrop of a joint session of Congress, how many networks would broadcast another Obama jobs speech?” But the paradox, as McGurn writes, is that “Three years into his presidency, the grander the stage the smaller Mr. Obama comes across”:
The president, however, got greedy, and killed the deal when he asked for more. That’s been his problem all along. Notwithstanding incessant calls to rise above politics, on issue after issue the president has proved himself incapable of matching his large rhetoric with equally large actions.
In music there’s a saying about a performance that was “too small for the house.” That’s becoming true of the president. There was a day when Mr. Obama’s taste for the marvelous—a campaign address in Berlin, the faux presidential seal, the Greek columns that surrounded him during his speech accepting the Democratic nomination—all seemed to herald something exciting and historic.
In retrospect though, particularly for those of us who never drank the Oba-Kool-Aid, Obama’s 2008 campaign had a distinct air of camp about it. It began with such eye-rolling lines as, “I am going to try to be so persuasive in the 20 minutes or so that I speak that by the time this is over, a light will shine down from somewhere. It will light upon you. You will experience an epiphany. And you will say to yourself, I have to vote for Barack. I have to do it.” By the campaign’s second act, the oceans were being lowered. As McGurn alluded to above, the climax involved a faux-Greek stage set produced by Industrial Light and Styrofoam, and eventually, the “Office of the President-Elect” logo, which looked like the product of a Fark Photoshop parody thread run amok.
Three years later though, Obama was reduced to shadowing the GOP presidential candidates in the Darth Vader Battle Bus and posing for pictures at the NOAA war room, complete with his plastic name tag on his desk reminding voters — and by now, maybe Obama himself — that he’s still the POTUS. Roger Kimball described the latter photo-op as Obama’s Dukakis in the Tank moment. Totaled-up, last month’s efforts really did make all of the 2008-era imagery look even sillier in retrospect; a zillion dollar Cecil B. DeMille biblical production as reimagined by the producers of Airplane. Surely you can’t be serious, Mr. President.
But actually, Yes He Can. “The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1964’s “Notes on ‘Camp,'” later adding, “Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality,’ of irony over tragedy.”
Taking the late Sontag seriously these days risks teetering into camp as well, but as the camp of the mid-1960s set the stage for the irony and postmodernism of the last thirty years, it’s worth remembering how silly much of the 2008 Obama campaign seems in retrospect, especially when put into comparison with the end product. As proto-Mad Man Jerry Della Femina wrote 40 years ago in his classic book on advertising, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor:
There is a great deal of advertising that’s better than the product. When that happens, all that the good advertising will do is put you out of business faster. There have been cases where the product had to come up to the advertising but when the product fails to do that, the advertiser will eventually run into a lot of trouble.
Will it work again in 2012? It certainly could; particularly given the extra added irony the road show repeat of the 2008 production will have. Hey, we all gritted our teeth through the camp of the Star Wars prequels — and yet we all paid to see them, right?