“I can’t believe he’s our president!” It was the sort of declaration that millions of people understandably made after Obama’s inauguration back in January, 2009. But that my daughter still felt the need to make it last night, May 4th 2016, speaks volumes about the strangeness of his two terms in the White House. Even now, many of his enemies on the Right still refuse to acknowledge his legitimacy.
If you listen to conservative talk radio around the United States, as I sometimes force myself to do, you will regularly hear callers provide a litany of reasons why Obama’s presidency is invalid, most of which derive from the still-active presumption that he is not a real American. Millions more, while stopping short of conspiracy theory, subscribe to the belief that his robust use of executive privilege in the face of congressional opposition makes it imperative for patriots to resist any moves he makes, however insignificant they may seem.
For these people, whose influence has played an increasingly large role in the Republican Party during Obama’s tenure, disbelief in his legitimacy has a blatantly ideological character. They regard the past eight years as a nightmare from which the nation desperately needs to awaken. Many perceive just about everything that has happened in American politics during this time as the product of a collective delusion, one which can be erased as easily as clicking “Undo” on a computer.
But that is not how my daughter sees things. While she has clear memories of George W. Bush’s time in the White House, Obama was already in office when she became aware of how the political system in the United States actually functions. Because she will turn eighteen just in time to vote in the November election, she has paid close attention to both the Republican and Democratic campaigns. Long before I recognized the potential for Bernie Sanders to mount a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton, she was urging me to support him. In short, she is neither a conservative nor the sort of person who is inclined to disbelieve in the name of political realism.
What, then, motivated her declaration? She had been playing the same short video over and over again, a clip the White House had posted of Barack and his wife Michelle celebrating the “holiday” devoted to Star Wars. Both are dancing to the mega-hit “Uptown Funk” along with a facsimile of the robot R2D2, looking, as the expression goes, comfortable in their skin. Then the president gestures beyond the frame, saying “Come on, stormtroopers,” at which point two of the iconic white-suited soldiers come over to join in the fun.
It’s the sort of move that Obama’s critics on both the Right and Left could easily turn against him, deploying it as evidence of the truth that underlies his presidency’s stylish façade: the United States is aligned with the forces of Empire and he is perfectly willing to send in the stormtroopers to maintain the nation’s hegemony. However, if you look at his face during the sequence, he almost seems to be relishing the prospect of such condemnation, perfectly aware of the threat to the clip’s propaganda value but acting, my daughter pointed out, as if he no longer has any fucks to give. In effect, he wins the rhetorical battle by not seeming to care about winning.
There’s nothing new about the White House trying to project a positive image of the president and his family. Nor is the invocation of popular culture in the video all that noteworthy. What made my daughter squeal with delight was the fact that the president actually seemed to be mimicking a dance move from a Start Wars video game, clips from which she had seen while scrolling through her Tumblr feed. What she found difficult to believe, in other words, is that, despite being the leader of the free world, Obama seems to possess the same kind of perversely particularized cultural knowledge that young people like her pride themselves on acquiring
A few nights before, the two of us had watched Obama speak for the final time at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. She was mesmerized, repeatedly making note of his comedic timing and deployment of cultural references. She loved it when he invoked the Star Wars prequels and when he made a joke about the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones. And when he declared “Obama out,” put two fingers to his lips and then literally dropped the microphone before leaving the podium, she was left speechless, shaking her head, mouth agape.
I was also impressed with Obama’s performance. But it left me feeling a little uneasy. At different junctures throughout the half hour, I had visions of what it might feel like for haters to watch him speak. His deadpan delivery and impossibly cool demeanour are almost as easy to revile as they are to admire. Everything about his manner communicates a sense of superiority and self-assurance. He knows people disagree with him. He knows that people despise him. He knows that some of them wouldn’t mind seeing him dead. And he knows he is better than they are, in almost every respect.
That’s what he seems to be communicating in situations like this, anyway, when his natural gifts are not inhibited by rules and regulations. He acts, as my daughter repeatedly stated, “like a boss.” What she meant by the term does not initially appear to have much in common with its traditional political connotations. For young people like her, it signifies a kind of extreme rhetorical dexterity, one which is defined as much by what someone doesn’t do — make factual errors, project awkwardness — as by what she or he does. Nor does it have to correlate with power as traditionally understood. It is possible to be a “boss” without actually being anyone’s boss.
What makes this strange and confusing with regard to Obama, of course, is that he manifestly is a boss in a traditional sense. Yes, politicians today may be dependent on their funders to an unprecedented degree, but they still possess real authority. And when the politician happens to be President of the United States, responsible on a daily basis for decisions that can result in the deaths of both soldiers and civilians, the significance of this authority is foolish to deny.
Yet that is what many people continue to do in the case of Obama. Even as his detractors decry his abuse of authority, they still diminish his stature, often acting as though he were only president in name only. And many of his supporters brush off criticism of his domestic and foreign policy by implying that it is more the product of conservative intransigence than his own premeditated actions. They reinforce the widely held belief that he owns his words, but not his deeds.
After Obama’s address at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was over, my daughter turned to me with questions. “What other American politician could have done that? Can you imagine how boring Hillary would be? Or how primitive Trump would seem by comparison?” I thought for a minute, trying hard to overcome my own political reflexes.
“You know, as much as it pains me to say this, the only other politician I could imagine performing like that was Ronald Reagan. He had has a superb delivery and was very good at telling jokes.” She looked at me, nonplussed. “Well, of course, Dad, he was an actor! I meant regular politicians.” And that’s when it clicked for me.
Maybe the reason so many people have a hard time believing that Obama is their president is that he is a lot more like Reagan than anyone realizes. Just as the Right hates Obama with a passion that seems irrational, the Left hated Reagan. While nobody questioned Reagan’s legal status as an American, the idea that a movie star could never be a legitimate political leader shadowed his entire post-Hollywood career. Yet he somehow managed to come out on top in one situation after another, in the process earning the nickname “Teflon president.” And his star has continued to ascend in the decades since he left office, no matter how many books are written about the mistakes made during his administration.
I think there’s a very good chance that the same thing will happen with Barack Obama. He could retreat back into academia, surely. But the potential for him to stay involved in popular culture, perhaps even as the host of a show, is clearly there. He has what it takes to remain in the spotlight, being a “boss” even though he will no longer be one in a technical sense. It will be interesting to see how far he is willing to go in this regard, whether he deems it a good way to preserve his legacy. First, though, he will have to figure out what kind of performances he wishes to foreground.
Photograph courtesy of dangerismycat. Published under a Creative Commons License