Obama Augustus: the power of images in the age of Obama

Shepard Fairey, designer of the famous red-and-blue "HOPE" portrait of Barack Obama, recently expressed disappointment with the President in an interview with National Journal's Aamer Madhani.  It is fitting, perhaps, that the self-styled "propaganda artist" who played a pivotal role in promulgating Obama's personality cult has now condemned the President for falling far short of expectations.

It was neither for his résumé nor for his policies that America fell in love with Obama (in fact his policy priorities have turned out to be quite unpopular). It was instead by following the lead of Rome's emperors that Obama and his staff created an image campaign (in which Fairey played no small role) to win - temporarily - America's awe and devotion. This sort of ruler cult begins to crumble when the ruler is required to make decisions and take positions under 21st century media scrutiny. But to understand Obama's fall, we must understand his rise; and to do that we must look to the Roman Empire.

In the art of self-promotion through images, Obama's closest parallels lived long before the age of YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle. Rome's first emperor, Augustus (63 bc - ad 14), was a master of manipulating what "mass media" there was, and it was through the propagation of carefully crafted, semi-divine portrait types; vague but appealing buzzwords; and abstract association with heroes of the past that Augustus and his successors garnered the support of the populus.

Augustus' "portrait-type" was disseminated for public consumption across the empire in the form of statues, coins and other artworks. Archaeologist Paul Zanker's Power of Images in the Age of Augustus describes this contrived likeness as "a calm, elevated expression" marked by "a timeless and remote dignity" - not unlike Fairey's Obama. This latter icon is seared into the mind of every American; and like Augustus' portrait, the image's omnipresence seemed to translate naturally into prestige and authority. But this process is not automatic: the image's success was dependent on our Western tradition of ruler cult, which dates back at least as far as Alexander the Great. The portrait's effectiveness also depended on its aesthetic qualities. Fairey removed all imperfections from Obama's face, made his hair into a symmetrical arc and set his jacket perfectly straight; and he imbued his picture of Obama with the gravitas and pietas which befits the ruler of the Western world.

Another of the President's portrait types, created by Ron English, fuses his features with Lincoln's. Obama's vaunted regard for Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals and his use of the Lincoln Memorial as the site for his star-studded pre-inaugural concert (presented in the best tradition of bread-and-circus politics) also led to souvenir coins with images of both the 16th and 44th Presidents. Few in the American media stopped to ask what this all really meant; but we might get a better idea when we think about how Trajan modeled his image on Rome's apotheosized rulers; how Constantine appropriated the monuments of previous "good emperors" to enhance his own esteem; and how Caligula's mint issued coins featuring his portrait alongside those of his more venerated predecessors.

Obama's Roman counterparts also wrote messages on their coins: simple, positive themes which varied from emperor to emperor. Hadrian, for example, the worldly emperor who withdrew the Roman army from Iraq, charged his coins with the words restitutor ("restorer" or "renewer") and spes: "HOPE."

It is clear that Obama's Roman-ness runs far deeper than the much-mocked classical façade erected as the backdrop for his acceptance speech two years ago. And the President has certainly tried to keep his image campaign going in the Oval Office; he continues to use the once-ubiquitous rising-sun "identity" designed by the aptly-named Sol Sender (personality-cult rulers from Augustus through Louis xiv have sought to associate themselves with the sun); and, by limiting press access, he obliges reporters to choose from a range of carefully selected, powerful images taken by White House photographer Pete Souza for all important events.

But Obama's ancient political tactics are not enough to maintain his prestige for two years in office; for unlike Augustus, the President has anything but a tight grip on the mass media. The rise of Obama was about images, emotions and themes; his fall has been the impossibility of making good on the superhuman expectations of a plugged-in populace.

A Washington Post report by Rick Rojas recently found, unsurprisingly, that as Obama's popularity continues to plummet, sales of Obama merchandise also decline. So get your Shepard Fairey "HOPE" posters now while prices are at rock bottom; these artifacts are, like the heroic Barack Obama of 2008, ancient history.

Jack Carlson is an archaeologist and Allbritton Scholar at Brasenose College, Oxford.
Shepard Fairey, designer of the famous red-and-blue "HOPE" portrait of Barack Obama, recently expressed disappointment with the President in an interview with National Journal's Aamer Madhani.  It is fitting, perhaps, that the self-styled "propaganda artist" who played a pivotal role in promulgating Obama's personality cult has now condemned the President for falling far short of expectations.

It was neither for his résumé nor for his policies that America fell in love with Obama (in fact his policy priorities have turned out to be quite unpopular). It was instead by following the lead of Rome's emperors that Obama and his staff created an image campaign (in which Fairey played no small role) to win - temporarily - America's awe and devotion. This sort of ruler cult begins to crumble when the ruler is required to make decisions and take positions under 21st century media scrutiny. But to understand Obama's fall, we must understand his rise; and to do that we must look to the Roman Empire.

In the art of self-promotion through images, Obama's closest parallels lived long before the age of YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle. Rome's first emperor, Augustus (63 bc - ad 14), was a master of manipulating what "mass media" there was, and it was through the propagation of carefully crafted, semi-divine portrait types; vague but appealing buzzwords; and abstract association with heroes of the past that Augustus and his successors garnered the support of the populus.

Augustus' "portrait-type" was disseminated for public consumption across the empire in the form of statues, coins and other artworks. Archaeologist Paul Zanker's Power of Images in the Age of Augustus describes this contrived likeness as "a calm, elevated expression" marked by "a timeless and remote dignity" - not unlike Fairey's Obama. This latter icon is seared into the mind of every American; and like Augustus' portrait, the image's omnipresence seemed to translate naturally into prestige and authority. But this process is not automatic: the image's success was dependent on our Western tradition of ruler cult, which dates back at least as far as Alexander the Great. The portrait's effectiveness also depended on its aesthetic qualities. Fairey removed all imperfections from Obama's face, made his hair into a symmetrical arc and set his jacket perfectly straight; and he imbued his picture of Obama with the gravitas and pietas which befits the ruler of the Western world.

Another of the President's portrait types, created by Ron English, fuses his features with Lincoln's. Obama's vaunted regard for Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals and his use of the Lincoln Memorial as the site for his star-studded pre-inaugural concert (presented in the best tradition of bread-and-circus politics) also led to souvenir coins with images of both the 16th and 44th Presidents. Few in the American media stopped to ask what this all really meant; but we might get a better idea when we think about how Trajan modeled his image on Rome's apotheosized rulers; how Constantine appropriated the monuments of previous "good emperors" to enhance his own esteem; and how Caligula's mint issued coins featuring his portrait alongside those of his more venerated predecessors.

Obama's Roman counterparts also wrote messages on their coins: simple, positive themes which varied from emperor to emperor. Hadrian, for example, the worldly emperor who withdrew the Roman army from Iraq, charged his coins with the words restitutor ("restorer" or "renewer") and spes: "HOPE."

It is clear that Obama's Roman-ness runs far deeper than the much-mocked classical façade erected as the backdrop for his acceptance speech two years ago. And the President has certainly tried to keep his image campaign going in the Oval Office; he continues to use the once-ubiquitous rising-sun "identity" designed by the aptly-named Sol Sender (personality-cult rulers from Augustus through Louis xiv have sought to associate themselves with the sun); and, by limiting press access, he obliges reporters to choose from a range of carefully selected, powerful images taken by White House photographer Pete Souza for all important events.

But Obama's ancient political tactics are not enough to maintain his prestige for two years in office; for unlike Augustus, the President has anything but a tight grip on the mass media. The rise of Obama was about images, emotions and themes; his fall has been the impossibility of making good on the superhuman expectations of a plugged-in populace.

A Washington Post report by Rick Rojas recently found, unsurprisingly, that as Obama's popularity continues to plummet, sales of Obama merchandise also decline. So get your Shepard Fairey "HOPE" posters now while prices are at rock bottom; these artifacts are, like the heroic Barack Obama of 2008, ancient history.

Jack Carlson is an archaeologist and Allbritton Scholar at Brasenose College, Oxford.

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