Obama: Celebrity in Chief

Barackobamacelebrity_lArgue with John McCain all you want about off-shore oil drilling and time tables for troop redeployment, but the Republican candidate is indisputably correct about one issue: Barack Obama really is "the biggest celebrity in the world." McCain’s new attack ad (you know, the one casting Britney Spears and Paris Hilton as this election’s Willie Horton) is right on target when it points out that Obama looks as much like a pop icon as the presumptive Democratic nominee. Where McCain goes wrong, though, is mistaking this for a bad thing. Obama’s movie star style of campaigning may well be what wins him the White House this November.

Just look at the "optics" from Obama’s trip overseas last month. There he is hovering over Iraq in a helicopter, flashing a Top Gun grin. There he is on a basketball court in Kuwait sinking a  three-pointer with the aplomb of a wonkier Michael Jordan. And there he is in Berlin, rocking a crowd of 200,000 in Tiergarten Park, with a speech almost as political as one of Bono’s. Rock star. Matinee idol. Sports hero. At times Obama has even resembled a fashion model — striding out of a jet in designer suit and sunglasses, a duffle slung effortlessly over one shoulder. Is this a campaign stop or a Dolce & Gabbana ad?

addCredit(“Barack Obama: Jim Young/Reuters”)

JFK may have been the first American President to use television tohis political advantage, Ronald Reagan may have been the first tomaster the medium, but Obama is the first candidate to turn hiscampaign into a multimedia marketing extravaganza akin to the launch ofa blockbuster film. He’s made himself more than a politician; he’s abrand, complete with logo (that red, white and blue "sunrise" symbol).

McCain complains that his opponent is too much of a glamour puss tobe President — usually while doing a badly lit photo op in the dairyaisle of a Midwestern supermarket. But Obama is merely appropriatingthe pop cultural syntax of our time, speaking to voters in the visuallanguage of our celebrity-crazed, media-saturated, consumer-driven age.Sure, it can be derided as shallow and trivial, but this is how youinfiltrate people’s head space in the 21st Century. It’s one of thereasons Obama is reaching voters who never paid much attention topolitics before (like all those kids snapping up Obama "superhero"T-shirts at Comic-Con last week). These days, when more people read People than Newsweek,when some of our best friends are celebrities — when we know more aboutBrad and Angelina’s kids than our neighbor’s and have a more intimaterelationship with Oprah than with our doctors — star power isn’t such aterrible thing to have if you happen to be running for President of theUnited States.

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  • Nix

    The danger, however, for Obama is for his candidacy to be subsumed into the crippling polarization of the country that, in pop cultural terms, is expressed in the Coasts vs. Heartland dichotomy, in which stereotyping and deliberate ignorance are in gross evidence on both sides. This would be a shame, because Obama should be a transcendent leader; and if *that* is what shone through in his “world tour”, then that should “play” everywhere. Playing divide-up-the-states, as has been popularized by cable news of both sides since 2000, is a zero-sum game. Obama should inspire everywhere. If he doesn’t, then perhaps he does not deserve the country–or vice versa.

  • Anonymous

    Talking about politics in an entertainment forum is never a good idea.

  • AspenFreePress

    So how does John McCain stack up against a guy who was editor of the Harvard Law Review, who got elected U.S. Senator from Illinois, who is leading in the race for president and who, to top it off, accepted a basketball challenge in Kuwait to sink a 3-pointer on first try in a military gym packed with cheering U.S. soldiers? How does John McCain win against such as wunderkind as Obama? Maybe bash Obama with attack ads? Say he’s an empty-headed celeb? Nah, won’t work. I truly wonder how McCain must feel every time he sees Obama on TV, sees that clip where Obama pivots to make that 3-pointer –WHOOSH. Sterling Greenwood, Aspen Free Press

  • Gerald

    Some poor blacks are upset with Barrack as demonstrated on the campaign trail today. For the REAL reson behind the disruption, look at this YouTube video:

  • Steven

    Good points, but overall McCain’s ‘Obama is just a celebrity’ angle is an effective move. Connecting Obama to celebs conjure up not only images of glamor, but also the vapid narcissism celeb watchers know all too well. Voyeurism has its appeal in modern sociey, but style over substance isn’t usually acceptable when it comes to handling the nation’s affairs.


  • Sheldon

    Barack Obama is using celebrity power to communicate his message of change in America’s politics. This combines substance with star power, which is why Obama is attracting such a large base of support in the 2008 presidential election.


  • Lcien BONNET

    Obama: Celebrity in Chief
    Aug 1, 2008, 08:23 PM | by Benjamin Svetkey
    Categories: Politics as Entertainment
    Thank you for wecloming me
    And allow me to congratulate you for your present article
    “Color cannot be understood except in relation to the person who perceives it,” physicist Pierre Demers wrote in the Foreword to this book entitled “Bill A Ri And There Was Light ! in http://www.contact-canadahaiti.ca. He clearly confirms the relevance of this essay. First of all, in fact, we thought it would be useful to consider the civilizational (politico-religious) attitude of the West toward the Blacks, before pointing out the deficiencies of present-day science, which is predominantly Western, in its perception of the Black Universe…
    Lucien BONNET
    Author of the Book entitled
    “Bill A Ri And There Was Light !” in


  • Ian

    I was all for him before the big overseas tour and now I am not so sure. There are so many pressing issues right here. What the French and Germans think of us is not one of them.

  • snee

    heck, i want to vote for him and i’m canadian!

  • Jaben

    All presidents are celebrities. The idea that you wouldn’t embrace this aspect of the job is idiotic and childish.
    Why discuss this America? Oh thats right, the people don’t set the discourse.
    Who cares if he’s cool — it’s pretty much a fact he’s smarter than McCain and doesn’t see stupid oil drilling as the solution to America’s energy problems.
    They never mention how much more oil there is to be drilled — and the fact that it’s going to cost much more to get it.


    Wow, yes we have more pressing issues here in the USA, but the fact that he went overseas for a week is not going to hurt the US….. as a Army VET I think it was great for a potential President/Commander-in-Chief to visit the areas that he did and try to show that all these countries can work together to achieve GLOBAL ISSUES **TOGETHER**…. wake up, the US is not the only country going through something, many coutries are going through things as well and if we can help each other thats what its all about.

  • Gary

    After 8 years of having an empty suit in office, I can’t believe we are going to elect Obama and continue the tradition. It sickens me.

  • Al

    I think it’s an effective ad and the movement to McCain in the polls over the last few days bears that out. It is an effective ad because it takes Obama’s strenghth and uses it against him.

  • dan

    Much has been said about this ad (Jon Stewart gave the most pointed argument, while over at TIME’s Tuned In it has been dissected even further) but the funniest thing to me about the ad occurs at the very end. It is strange (and hilarious) to me that McCain looks exactly like Ian McDiarmid’s Chancellor Palpatine in the closing shot. Why he would willingly choose to look like the evil Emperor is beyond me.

  • yaya

    Oh please – this from the party that put Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan in office. Tell them to stop whining about how popular their opponent is.

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