Obama's Evolving Image

An image, as any PR pro can tell you, has a life of its own. It can be manipulated and shaped to an extent, but only to an extent. Once past a difficult-to-define but easily recognized point, it is what it is and can be adjusted only on the margins.

This is as true of presidents as anyone else. Consider Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Whatever you might think of his policies, the image is clarity itself. Cheerful, insouciant, debonair, a man of great optimism and good will, if confined to his own terms. A man whose personality so overcame his disability as to render it irrelevant. Under the conditions of the Depression, any other son of the upper classes sporting a pince-nez and a cigarette holder would have been run out of town on a rail. Not Roosevelt -- they simply added to his charm, a charm as evident today in his photos as it was during his lifetime. That charm never failed him -- except in the case of Stalin, who was, of course, immune to anything human.

Despite the efforts -- efforts that continue to  this day -- to depict Ronald Reagan as a dolt, a maniac, or a throwback, his historical image easily equals FDR's. Reagan was a man of continual good cheer, no matter what the situation. He inspired trust from a battered nation, a trust that the media could never dent, a trust that was never betrayed. He was not as urbane, perhaps, as FDR (you would not have caught Reagan dead with a cigarette holder), but he was in no way a sucker for ideologues, as FDR too often was. It's no surprise that each in his own way was a revolutionary leader, creating a hinge on which the age itself swung.

We can contrast these two with Richard Nixon, the black sheep of American politics.  "Tricky Dick" -- shifty, dishonest, and untrustworthy. Comic impressionists of the day always portrayed his eyes as darting to all corners of the room, though Nixon in truth was one of the most self-controlled of any public figure. It has been clearly demonstrated that he was no worse than many others who preceded him -- among them none other than FDR himself. Nixon's weaknesses were those of the neurotic, the man who is self-destructive despite his talents, who can never build so high that he himself can't tear it down. Nixon was a pathetic figure, his story a democratic tragedy. But he was never able to arouse any sense of sympathy. His image is set in concrete as the great American Machiavelli, a manipulator, a liar, and a cheat. Even history let Dick Nixon down.

George W. Bush was attacked more viciously than Reagan, and with a much broader brush. Even today, a large percentage of the publicly available "photos" of Bush are in  fact photoshopped caricatures. But the image of Bush  reflected in the actual record is one of equanimity, of an almost preternatural calmness in the face of a deeply hostile universe. The historical Bush is a man who could confront the worst catastrophes with deep serenity and a quiet, unshakable confidence in his own abilities. His enemies depicted this as vacuity or stupidity, but that's mere projection. It is a rare quality, not often encountered in daily life and almost never seen in a politician. Little wonder that it is only now being recognized. Criticize Bush all you wish; we could have done far worse.

Barack Obama's image as president is still in a state of flux. No previous president put more effort into image formation. Obama was presented to the country, with his own approval and collaboration, as a religious figure, a prophet for a secular age. A messiah to match  the new millennium, a god-emperor possessing abilities beyond those of average men. His rhetoric, behavior, and iconography all reflected this -- the halos, the church-like lighting, the worshipful descriptions of his followers.

All that is gone. Obama could act as a textbook example of the limitations of image manipulation. If any effort could have kept an image alive, it would have been this one. More resources, time, and energy went into the Obama myth than any comparable campaign. The nation's entire media sphere was devoted for several years to preaching the gospel of Obama, along with a large proportion of the international media.

Obama's permanent image as president appears to be shaking down to two possibilities. The first, embodied in his characteristic posture when addressing the public, might be called "American Duce." Head thrown back, chin jutting, a frown cutting his features, Obama presents himself as less a man than an archetype of human power. Obama uses this during speeches, debates,  and public events.  

 It's even evident in the classic Hope and Change
posters. It is an imperial expression, designed to overawe and impress, the expression of an Augustus contemplating his empire. Mussolini adapted it as the proper public image of the ruler of Nuova Roma. To my knowledge, no other major leader since has utilized anything similar. (Mussolini's other trick, limited to private audiences, was "the stare," in which he would gaze penetratingly and unblinkingly while advancing on visitors, pausing to examine them for several seconds before moving on. Claudio Spadaro, who portrayed Mussolini in Franco Zefferelli's film Tea with Mussolini, had this down to...well, to a "T." If Obama starts pulling anything like this, we'll really have something to worry about.)

The othe r is what might be called the "schoolmarm" look. It is an expression of simple petulance and impatience, best characterized by the term "fuming." A fixed glare, lips twisted in a near-pout, arms often crossed. One almost expects to hear the tapping of a foot. It's a posture not often seen in presidents, more commonly encountered among stubborn juveniles and novice schoolteachers. We have been seeing this quite often lately since things began to seriously go south for the administration.          

At this point, not yet halfway through his presidency, it's impossible to say which image will settle upon Barack Obama. I myself have no particular preference. The Duce look has appeared in quite a few magazine and newspaper illustrations in recent months. I imagine that one has to be taken as better, if only marginally, than the other.

Our image seldom matches what we want, or what we may believe ourselves to be. Character always comes out. Obama is in the process of learning this. FDR was a flippant, engaging figure. Reagan was a man of endless good cheer (recall his joking with the surgeons after he was shot). Bush remains a man of superb calm and detachment. The real Obama will inevitably emerge. I doubt it will be a surprise to anybody.

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker and will edit the forthcoming Military Thinker. 
He is the author of Death by Liberalism.

An image, as any PR pro can tell you, has a life of its own. It can be manipulated and shaped to an extent, but only to an extent. Once past a difficult-to-define but easily recognized point, it is what it is and can be adjusted only on the margins.

This is as true of presidents as anyone else. Consider Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Whatever you might think of his policies, the image is clarity itself. Cheerful, insouciant, debonair, a man of great optimism and good will, if confined to his own terms. A man whose personality so overcame his disability as to render it irrelevant. Under the conditions of the Depression, any other son of the upper classes sporting a pince-nez and a cigarette holder would have been run out of town on a rail. Not Roosevelt -- they simply added to his charm, a charm as evident today in his photos as it was during his lifetime. That charm never failed him -- except in the case of Stalin, who was, of course, immune to anything human.

Despite the efforts -- efforts that continue to  this day -- to depict Ronald Reagan as a dolt, a maniac, or a throwback, his historical image easily equals FDR's. Reagan was a man of continual good cheer, no matter what the situation. He inspired trust from a battered nation, a trust that the media could never dent, a trust that was never betrayed. He was not as urbane, perhaps, as FDR (you would not have caught Reagan dead with a cigarette holder), but he was in no way a sucker for ideologues, as FDR too often was. It's no surprise that each in his own way was a revolutionary leader, creating a hinge on which the age itself swung.

We can contrast these two with Richard Nixon, the black sheep of American politics.  "Tricky Dick" -- shifty, dishonest, and untrustworthy. Comic impressionists of the day always portrayed his eyes as darting to all corners of the room, though Nixon in truth was one of the most self-controlled of any public figure. It has been clearly demonstrated that he was no worse than many others who preceded him -- among them none other than FDR himself. Nixon's weaknesses were those of the neurotic, the man who is self-destructive despite his talents, who can never build so high that he himself can't tear it down. Nixon was a pathetic figure, his story a democratic tragedy. But he was never able to arouse any sense of sympathy. His image is set in concrete as the great American Machiavelli, a manipulator, a liar, and a cheat. Even history let Dick Nixon down.

George W. Bush was attacked more viciously than Reagan, and with a much broader brush. Even today, a large percentage of the publicly available "photos" of Bush are in  fact photoshopped caricatures. But the image of Bush  reflected in the actual record is one of equanimity, of an almost preternatural calmness in the face of a deeply hostile universe. The historical Bush is a man who could confront the worst catastrophes with deep serenity and a quiet, unshakable confidence in his own abilities. His enemies depicted this as vacuity or stupidity, but that's mere projection. It is a rare quality, not often encountered in daily life and almost never seen in a politician. Little wonder that it is only now being recognized. Criticize Bush all you wish; we could have done far worse.

Barack Obama's image as president is still in a state of flux. No previous president put more effort into image formation. Obama was presented to the country, with his own approval and collaboration, as a religious figure, a prophet for a secular age. A messiah to match  the new millennium, a god-emperor possessing abilities beyond those of average men. His rhetoric, behavior, and iconography all reflected this -- the halos, the church-like lighting, the worshipful descriptions of his followers.

All that is gone. Obama could act as a textbook example of the limitations of image manipulation. If any effort could have kept an image alive, it would have been this one. More resources, time, and energy went into the Obama myth than any comparable campaign. The nation's entire media sphere was devoted for several years to preaching the gospel of Obama, along with a large proportion of the international media.

Obama's permanent image as president appears to be shaking down to two possibilities. The first, embodied in his characteristic posture when addressing the public, might be called "American Duce." Head thrown back, chin jutting, a frown cutting his features, Obama presents himself as less a man than an archetype of human power. Obama uses this during speeches, debates,  and public events.  

 It's even evident in the classic Hope and Change
posters. It is an imperial expression, designed to overawe and impress, the expression of an Augustus contemplating his empire. Mussolini adapted it as the proper public image of the ruler of Nuova Roma. To my knowledge, no other major leader since has utilized anything similar. (Mussolini's other trick, limited to private audiences, was "the stare," in which he would gaze penetratingly and unblinkingly while advancing on visitors, pausing to examine them for several seconds before moving on. Claudio Spadaro, who portrayed Mussolini in Franco Zefferelli's film Tea with Mussolini, had this down to...well, to a "T." If Obama starts pulling anything like this, we'll really have something to worry about.)

The othe r is what might be called the "schoolmarm" look. It is an expression of simple petulance and impatience, best characterized by the term "fuming." A fixed glare, lips twisted in a near-pout, arms often crossed. One almost expects to hear the tapping of a foot. It's a posture not often seen in presidents, more commonly encountered among stubborn juveniles and novice schoolteachers. We have been seeing this quite often lately since things began to seriously go south for the administration.          

At this point, not yet halfway through his presidency, it's impossible to say which image will settle upon Barack Obama. I myself have no particular preference. The Duce look has appeared in quite a few magazine and newspaper illustrations in recent months. I imagine that one has to be taken as better, if only marginally, than the other.

Our image seldom matches what we want, or what we may believe ourselves to be. Character always comes out. Obama is in the process of learning this. FDR was a flippant, engaging figure. Reagan was a man of endless good cheer (recall his joking with the surgeons after he was shot). Bush remains a man of superb calm and detachment. The real Obama will inevitably emerge. I doubt it will be a surprise to anybody.

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker and will edit the forthcoming Military Thinker. 
He is the author of Death by Liberalism.