Weekend thoughts: Obama and his image

Via email I was pointed to this Matt Stoller piece about Obama and the bank bailouts, basically a book announcement with comment, entitled “BAILOUT: Former Bailout Watchdog Neil Barofsky to Release Tell-All Account Of Bush/Obama Administration Banking Policies“.

The book promises to be interesting, and I’m going to watch for it and its reviews.

Stoller has been highly critical of Obama and his handling of Wall Street and the mortgage fraud crisis, and this piece reflects that. Do read for that alone if this subject interests you.

There’s a second reflection in Matt’s essay though that I’d like to consider here: How Obama is seen — in other words, his frame.

For Stoller, there are three narratives that explain Obama. I’m going to ignore the Republican explanation, since that’s entirely cynical; only their rubes (in and out of office) believe it.

These narratives (explanations, frames) are:

Barack Obama, the brave progressive — community organizer–turned–politician, super-smart, past master of eleven-dimensional chess. The hero of 2008, killer of Osama bin Laden, bringer of health care to the masses.

This guy — remember when that saying made sense?

In this narrative, Obama is, as I wrote almost a year ago, “the well-meaning but ineffective ‘friend of the Left,’ tragically hobbled” by Tea and circumstance.

Stoller puts it this way:

[Democrats see him as] not bold enough! Congress is holding him back from his progressive instincts! We haven’t made him do what we know he wants to do!

This is the Democratic party’s framing of Obama, and it’s both consciously sold and uncritically accepted — despite the fact that more and more people with ties to the Party are starting to say something very different in private.

■ The Obama counter-narrative is simple — Barack Obama, betrayer of Hope & Change.

It turns up in many places, for example, here and here. It doesn’t take much to find more.

For Stoller, this leads to an image of Obama as “the great deceiver,” a man with a “charming and cool demeanor that masks his ruthlessness and … neo-liberal ideology.”

I’ve written similarly, though my focus was on the question “Is Obama strong or weak?” From the same essay last year:

There’s another explanation … that Obama is one of our strongest presidents, though widely misunderstood. In this explanation, Obama is playing poker across the table from … us, the Left.

And the whispers into his shell-like come from Republicans and Clintonistas, i.e., Movement Conservatives and NeoLiberals. He wants what they all want; he just wants his own machine to be in charge of the profits and benefits.

The trick? Keep the Left from knowing they’re being played. The goal? Keep the game alive until 2013, when Obama’s home free (at which point, Mr & Ms Left better seriously watch out).

Keeping these different explanations of the president in mind, I want to point out a great catch by Stoller near the end of his piece:

… You can see [the strength of Obama’s narrative] in the utter lack of an effective comedic impersonator of Barack Obama.

When Tina Fey first gave her impression of Sarah Palin, the political world exploded in chatter about how perfectly Fey had captured Palin’s character. Will Ferrell nailed something about Bush … a kind of juvenile cunning frat-boy type spirit.

No one has captured in comedy Obama’s flawed self, whatever you think those flaws are.

Think about that. There have been flawed-self caricatures of almost every major political figure and most presidents. Fey’s Palin was brilliant, as was the Jekyll-and-Hyde “Bill Clinton” who used to call in to Marc Maron’s Morning Sedition show. Comedy genius and golden opportunity.

But no flawed-Obama. To me this suggests both a failure of analysis and a lack of trying. Is he really that likeable? Yes. Is there also a counter-narrative that could be mined for comic gold? I can easily think of several.

The closest I found to an actually adversarial “impersonation” of Obama (and it’s really just a characterization, but with comic potential) is this, from Karl Rove of all people:

“…even if you never met him, you know this guy. He’s the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by.”

Not saying it’s right or wrong, this characterization — just that it has the core of a comic representation the way Tina Fey’s Palin does. Rove’s Obama-the-trickster verbal image, and that iconic cigarette photo, are as close as anyone gets to an alt-Obama representation in art.

Rove is building an “anti-elitist” ad campaign around this idea, so he’s twisting it to his new purpose.

But the core image is broader. Using this core as a base — the self-absorbed, poised Mr. Smarter-than-you — the self-confident opportunist who wants your help but won’t give his (why won’t he go to Wisconsin for the Walker Recall?) — could have real comic potential.

Will we ever see this alt-Obama reflected in art, performance or otherwise? I’m not sure. It may have to wait for the day when Obama has descended and the world
perhaps sees the misdirections and missed opportunities of his reign, as James Galbraith has done:

[T]he President … is a young man. Unlike say Lyndon B. Johnson or Jimmy Carter, when his term ends he won’t be able simply to go home. He’ll need a big house in a gated suburb, with high walls and rich friends….

[But that] won’t save him. For if and when he ventures out, for the rest of his life, the eyes of all those, whose hopes he once raised will follow him. The old, the poor, the jobless, the homeless: their eyes will follow him wherever he goes.

Now that’s a counter-narrative to conjure with. Ouch.

GP

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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States. Click here for more. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius and Facebook.

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