(And with part four in the series, we wrap our splendiferous coverage of Barack Obama's relationship with popular culture. Please see part one "ObamaRama, The Beginning," part two, "ObamaRama, The Sequel, and part three, "ObamaRama, The Trinity."EO)
Leftward Shift in American Culture Propelled Obama to the White House
It may seem like a distant memory now, but about six or seven years ago, the influence of the left wing in mainstream and political culture was nearing rock bottom. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the beginnings of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, conservative figures and conservative ideals dominated what Americans read and watched in the media.
It wasn't just the politics of the Bush Administration that got a ringing endorsement from our cultural gatekeepers; it was the symbols of the new, neoconservative America that were the strongest influences on the American public. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was dubbed "America's mayor." The American flag became the central icon of American life, more so perhaps than ever before. And the unflinching support of the President, the war(s) and the troops became the uniting force behind the public's perception of America.
Those few who did try to reassert more liberal values in this climate were branded as radicals and traitors. The traditional outlets of the mainstream left in America – from Hollywood films to the New York Times – were either swept up in the neoconservative movement, silenced or marginalized. This was best illustrated at the 2003 Academy Awards, when leftist filmmaker Michael Moore took the stage to denounce the Bush Administration and was roundly booed – in Los Angeles, no less.
Leftist disillusionment culminated in the run-up to the 2004 presidential elections. Vermont Governor Howard Dean looked like the next person to take up the liberal mantel until the now-infamous "Dean Scream," when an overblown scream at the end of a speech effectively ended his presidential ambitions.
The 2004 Democratic nomination eventually went to John Kerry, who acted as more of a centrist than Dean. Although more effective than Dean as a politician, Kerry was unable to make even the remotest dent in the popular culture; he may go down in history as one of the more forgettable presidential candidates in recent memory. Even many strident Democrats only supported Kerry reluctantly, adopting the "anyone-but-Bush" mantra that ultimately failed at the polls.
But in the midst of the crisis, a new leader stepped forward. The star of the 2004 Democratic convention wasn't John Kerry by any means – it was the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. Obama's oratory immediately made him stand out, not for any political reason but rather because of his potential impact on the culture. Obama's diverse ethnic background, combined with his ability to speak and write (two bestsellers), made him the rising star of the American left.
And rise he did in the ensuing years, as the backlash against the Bush brand of neo-conservatism grew. Obama (among other Democrats) benefited from the growth of a new liberal media. This may seem ironic, since the "mainstream media" is referred to as the "liberal media" as if the two terms were interchangeable. On the contrary, the great rise in popularity of new forms of politics (especially on the Internet) gave liberals and leftists the voice that had been denied them in the early years of the Iraq war.
One could list any number of blogs or evening news talking heads that signified the cultural sea change, but the two biggest outlets for this new liberal media were MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann and Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Neither show was new, but in the years following John Kerry's defeat in 2004 both shows grew not only in ratings but in stature. This was an utterly new development; since the advent of cable news, the battle had been waged largely between the right-wing Fox News Network and the center-left CNN. Now, MSNBC and Comedy Central (of all places) were beginning to exert a large, counteractive influence upon the American public.
Countdown dealt with hard news and attempted to defy the silencing of dissent that resulted in the years following September 11th. Host Keith Olbermann became a hero of the left not just for his outrage and moral indignation, but his attempts to back it up with solid facts and a critical eye to the inconsistencies of the Bush administration. A new host of "talking heads" began to pop up on Countdown, as reporters and columnists found a televised outlet for their discontent.
The Daily Show, and its spin-off The Colbert Report, tackled the same issues from a completely different perspective – humor. If Olbermann seemed at times to take himself too seriously, the same could never be said of Jon Stewart. Not only did his show offer a political alternative to a media still cowed by charges of liberalism and radicalism, it became a great cultural icon.
Stewart's show transcended politics to become a part of everyday lives among many Americans – particularly the young people who were already watching Comedy Central. Stewart not only gave voice to new voices like Obama and Dean, he also brought back leftist veterans and icons such as Kurt Vonnegut and Howard Zinn – who, it's safe to say, would never have made it on Oprah, much less Fox News or CNN.
The success of these two shows aided, but did not solely bring about, the sea change of public opinion from outright support of the Bush administration to outright contempt. The American flag was no longer everyone's favorite car magnet, and neither was it the unofficial symbol of the Republican Party. Flag decals still abounded – but were more likely to be accompanied by a phrase such as "Peace is Patriotic" or "Dissent is American." Such outright leftists ideas, shunted to the very periphery in the early Bush years, could now be seen even in the reddest of red states.
What was once a trickle soon became a flood. Bookstores were flooded by new works from liberal social critics such as James Carville (as well as Olbermann and Stewart) demanding the return of more "Democratic (i.e. leftist)" values to American culture. Investigative reporters – most notably Watergate veteran Bob Woodward — dug through the inner workings of the Bush administration and produced a devastating study of neo-conservatism in action. Michael Moore, Hollywood pariah, became Michael Moore, the toast of Cannes, when his film Sicko, which decried the American system of privatized health care, earned him a prolonged standing ovation at the prestigious film festival.
The change went from the top – Democratic leaders re-embracing liberal ideals – to the bottom – people in cafes, on the street and in the workplace criticizing Bush, Cheney, the Iraq war and the fundamental tenets of neo-conservatism. This change in media perception was also reflected among conservative sources as well. Staunch Republicans in Washington were forced to distance themselves from the most controversial aspects of the Bush administration or risk losing credibility. Far-right commentators on Fox News or talk radio didn't retreat from their conservative values, but they were forced to concede to at least some mistakes made by the Bush administration, and more importantly, they could no longer insist that all who disagreed with them were "traitors."
And so what seemed like a long shot in 2004 now seemed realistic: Barack Obama could become president. No longer did a Democratic nominee have to play the center or pledge themselves to the Iraq war effort (as Kerry had); now it was possible – even essential – for the Democratic nominee to capture the popular discontent with the established order and embrace at least part of the liberal ideology.
It seemed like a cakewalk for the Democratic Party in 2008, until the primary process came along and they faced an entirely unfamiliar problem: too many viable candidates for office. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton seemed able to win in the November election. Both had strong qualities that appealed to party faithful. Obama, whose politics skewed slightly leftward of Clinton, seemed like the person to bring disaffected young people to the polls, and his nomination would certainly boost turnout among African-American voters. Clinton, on the other hand, appealed more to the Democratic "party faithful:" senior citizens, blue-collar workers and union members.
From a cultural standpoint, it seemed unlikely that the young, handsome, eloquent heir to the John F. Kennedy mantle could be deposed by one of the most polarizing figures in American politics. That Clinton came so close is a testament to her own abilities, as well as the great organizational system she had in place, a system matched only by Obama's. If Obama's greatest strength was his status as a cultural icon, then Clinton did everything she could to remake the race on her terms; she went to great extremes to make the race about ideology, policy and experience rather than giving in to the cultural zeitgeist. And again, considering what a high standard she set there, it's a testament to Obama that he was able to reassure voters well enough to win the nomination, which he did by the barest of margins.
With the full weight and force of the Democratic establishment – liberals and centrists united, for once – Barack Obama's ascent to the presidency seemed inevitable. It was not to be so easy. It's hard to say without the hindsight of history, but in a country where strong cultural forces are hard to stop, we have to ask ourselves why John McCain came so close to beating Obama. A lot of it had to do with the still-intact political infrastructure that Karl Rove had so expertly maneuvered in the past two presidential races. Plus, it's a matter of basic cultural fact in this country that it's difficult to win national office if you're of mixed race and politically left of center.
In this matter, one cannot discount the influence of far right scare tactics: claims that Obama was Moslem, that he was not born in the United States, that he was a socialist or simply that he was "the most liberal member of Congress," according to Fox News. Scare tactics aren't a classy way to win votes, but they are none the less effective.
Instead of looking for political or social reasons, perhaps it was simply cultural. Perhaps what Barack Obama symbolized, as an African-American with an absent father who grew up to become a lawyer and a talented orator, was more important than politics. My colleagues at blogcritics.org know better than I what part culture has played in the success and failures of Barack Obama.
But I would argue that Obama as a cultural figure was very fortunate to come along at exactly the right time. The cultural shift that began to bear fruit for the leftists in 2004 was what allowed Barack Obama to win the Democratic nomination and the presidential election. It's unthinkable to imagine Obama's candidacy succeeding in 2003 as it did when he announced it in 2007. It was the cultural shift away from post-9/11 conservatism that allowed him to succeed. And he couldn't have done it without a resurgent American left.
Definition of (this) Man
Every man should be defined by what he is, not what he isn’t; neither should he be defined by and held to the limits of popular perception. President Obama isn’t just different from the previous office holder, and he isn’t just America’s first African-American president. His strong domestic presence, his determination in the international community, and his willful upholding of that which is treasured most among us represents all Americans from every background and of every station in life.
While comparisons have been drawn between the general appearance of past presidents and Obama in the course of presidential duty, it is more the people he has chosen to meet, the places he has chosen to go, and the things he’s chosen to do that differentiate him from the rest. His actions have spoken louder than his already articulate words.
From front porches and forums to formal dinners and the front line, he has willingly and familiarly stepped into the lives of children and the elderly, the impoverished and the opulent, and civilian families and military communities. He has shown our best face and represented our best interests on the international stage with ease and grace.
He is more often embraced, but even when he is abhorred it is a two-sided exchange – our power of all with his power of one. The opportunity of the exchange itself is different from past presidents who either gave of themselves too much and were left with little early on, or who stubbornly paced themselves for the finish line, even as we desperately needed the sprint – much to our loss.
Every American has seen themselves in President Obama, if only for a moment, no matter how uncomfortable that connection. Even as there is something to like, there is something to dislike, but not so much that he would reflect our weaknesses, insecurities, and glances with despair. Rather we are assured of our collective strengths when he speaks with clarity, when his gait promises not to miss, and when he rolls up his sleeves to work – because it is our work, and it needs more than clean clothes that fit and every crease in its place. Our work needs concentration, commitment, priority, and the assurance that distraction will not be the greatest enemy of all.
He is more like us than any past president has ever been or cared to be, and it is with this most dubious of yardsticks — the one in which every American makes up a tick — that he is most accurately defined.