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.
If anything, Obama’s presidency is defined by its symbolism. He’s the first black President, but of mixed race and therefore supposedly a living embodiment of racial healing. He is a man who claimed that there is no red or blue America, only the United States of America, and that he is the man whose own life and history render him uniquely qualified to lead. He sees himself as a symbol who transcends the symbols that preceded him. He and Hillary Clinton even debated what the job of POTUS is supposed to be, with Clinton arguing that it’s an executive job while Obama argued that it’s mostly symbolic.
That in mind, it’s worth taking a look at how he and his friends treat the most potent symbols of America. Yes, I’ll be rehashing history here to some extent, but there’s a point and purpose in doing so.
There’s the unofficial national motto, “God Bless America.” Particularly after 9-11, “God Bless America” became a kind of unifying second national anthem. Obama’s political ally of 20 years, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, would have none of that.
Obama claims he never heard that particular sermon, but he did hear hundreds of others with similar themes delivered from that same pulpit.
There’s Bill Ayers, another of Obama’s longtime political allies. The unrepentant terrorist helped launch Obama’s political career at his home, after the two had served together for years on the Woods Foundation board. Ayers showed his respect for the American flag, as a symbol for the nation, in this 2001 photo for Chicago Magazine.
Ayers and Obama were serving together on the Woods board at the time this photo was taken. Ayers obviously understood the symbolism in that photo at the time. There’s no evidence that Obama objected to it. He kept steering foundation money Ayers’ way, and continued to serve with him on the board.
And there’s Obama himself, who famously refuses to wear the American flag on his lapel because of what doing so communicates:
“You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin,” Obama said. “Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq War, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security, I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest.”
So to Obama, wearing the flag represented a false patriotism, while refusing to wear it and speaking out on national security was, to him, true patriotism. The point here isn’t whether he was right or wrong on that, but to reinforce the point that he thinks in terms of symbols and icons.
After the election, but before taking office, Obama even created new transition imagery. The “Office of the President-Elect” doesn’t exist according to the Constitution, but that didn’t stop the creation of yet another logo.
Obama gets symbolism, and his allies get symbolism, and they use it to tell the world what they think. The press gets symbolism, too. Early on in his presidency, mainstream media photographers just couldn’t help finding angles to depict Obama as if he wore a halo. Two seconds with Google yields the proof:
All of that in mind, what does this moment from Friday communicate to the world?
The press is remarkably quiet about Friday’s event, calling it “awkward” or even scoring the tax cut fight as a “victory” for Obama, but otherwise laying off. On Monday afternoon, Obama emerged briefly to deliver a few remarks on the tax deal, but he took no questions from the press. CNN’s John King even joked that “sidekick” Bill Clinton was nowhere to be seen, but the joke was on America. Obama’s brief presser looked like a child reluctantly getting back on his training wheel bike after a nasty crash. He pedaled a few feet, and then hastily jumped off to get back to his Playstation.
I doubt that the symbolism of Friday’s presser was intentional. I don’t think that Obama believed that his walking out would be seen as the abdication of leadership that it was. Like the Greek columns and the Berlin speech, Obama probably intended to the imagery to say one thing, but it accidentally said something else entirely. Friday’s press conference struck me as another sign of disrespect for the office he holds, and another of Barack Obama’s misuses of the power with which he has been entrusted. He intended to show unity with the former and still popular President, but actually told the world that he’s no longer up to his job and won’t even bother trying to pretend he is. Roger wrote over the weekend that it showed that America doesn’t have a leader now. That’s right, and it’s very dangerous.
The image that Obama broadcast on Friday was one of serious, and perhaps incurable, weakness. The moment looked like what happens in a corporate setting, when an experienced hand steps in to temporarily take over for a inexperienced executive who has botched a big job and needs time to get his mind right. What happens next in the corporate world is that the junior exec gets some training, or gets sidelined, or gets fired. But we’re not talking about a junior exec. There’s no training available, no sideline to run to, and his contract lasts a couple more years.
Obama has taken the presidency to a moment of such weakness that we have to reach back to Watergate for a comparison, but Obama’s moment wasn’t brought on by scandal. It’s the result of his personality and his lack of preparation for the job, “first class temperament” notwithstanding. And it’s also the result of how he views the job, as a symbol of authority rather than the fact and exercise of authority.
Kim Jong-Il and his successor son are watching, as are Vlad Putin, the Chinese Communists, al Qaeda, the mullahcracy in Iran and every other potential threat or challenger on the planet. If Obama can’t handle his own party or a simple press conference, can he handle Somali pirates, Hugo Chavez or that shopworn 3 am crisis?
On Friday, when he exited the stage and left Bill Clinton temporarily in charge, Barack Obama told the world that he can no longer handle any of that.