(This is part two of a series on the relationship between President Barack Obama and our popular culture. Please see part one, "ObamaRama, The Beginning" should the spirit so move you, and it probably should.)
One of the fantastic facets of sports is that people who have extreme ideological differences can come together and agree on certain principles of athletic competition. Can't agree on immigration? Well, maybe you feel the same way about the Jay Cutler trade.
Still skeptical about the president's stimulus plan? Well, maybe you agree with him that we should have a playoff in college football.
Obama took office hoping to rattle a few cages and break the mold. At least with this topic he's done just that. In March he even took some time and threw down an NCAA tournament bracket on national television while admitting he would sneak in watching a little bit of the games while flying to Europe. Even during the campaign Obama took a breather to help Rick Reilly pick his fantasy football team.
For all his interests, the fellow is a sports nut. President Bush had a passion for baseball (he had partial ownership in the Texas Rangers) and those before them played athletics up through college. Others would simply do the bare minimum by inviting championship teams to the White House and throwing out first pitches. But Obama has displayed, among other human elements, the presidential equivalent of face paint.
A sporting event is really a microcosm of classism in America. The blue collar workers in the nosebleeds, braving weather and long lines just to barely get into a stadium. The CEOs sit in the luxury suites showing up in the 2nd inning and leaving in the 7th, not really sure the names of the players down below. Whether it's intentionally symbolic or not, President Obama has infused his stature with the ability to still enjoy sports like a common man. It may or may not mean he'll go to bat for the average citizen, but it's certainly unprecedented for a government ruler who normally keeps his hobbies as secret as possible while he's in office.
Dirt Off His Shoulders
While every President reflects his place in culture in some way, most avoid alienating the general public by keeping their cultural references subtle. President Bush often used language that evangelical Christians recognized but left most people unaware of his intentions. President Obama hasn't been president for long yet, but already during his campaign, he gave us at least one example of his approach:
Just as some wondered why evangelical Christians considered President Bush one of their own, completely missing the cultural references, some actually debated whether then-Senator Obama was saying anything other than the obvious as he brushed off his shoulders.
The roars of the crowd make it clear that most of that audience understood immediately what he was doing. Most evangelical Christians would have missed this reference, though, since presumably most of them aren't fans of rapper Jay-Z, whose song "Dirt Off Your Shoulders" inspired Obama's brush-off. Comparing Obama's gestures at about the 30-second mark with similar gestures in the Jay-Z video should leave no doubt.
What does the future hold for a President younger and more connected to pop culture than any in recent memory? If the campaign is any guide, young people may start to collect the references that evangelical Christians have been collecting for eight years.
The Obama Book Club
President Barack Obama's focus has been on economy, in which virtually no industry is immune. Even the book industry is undergoing "restructuring," with hundreds laid off at publishing houses and booksellers. Yet Obama may be his own stimulus package for the book business.
As evidenced by his tax returns this month, Obama clearly has impact as an author. He earned around $2.5 million in royalties in 2008 as a result of sales of his books Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. Although both had enjoyed excellent sales for quite a while (Obama earned nearly $4.1 million in royalties in 2007), within two weeks of his election the books were again entrenched on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list. Not only did the books rank one and two on the newspaper's paperback nonfiction bestseller list that week, in third place on that list was a collection of Obama's speeches. The two books he wrote remain on the paperback nonfiction bestseller list and ranked among the top 10 nonfiction sellers for all of 2008.
While that doesn't turn him into nonfiction's version of Stephenie Meyer, he is viewed by America and the world as enough of a literati that doesn’t even have to write to generate book sales. Within three weeks of his election, at least three books about him and his election – including one combining his inaugural address with Abraham Lincoln's – hit the New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list, collectively spending a total of 17 weeks there. In fact, Obama need only be seen with a book to influence book sales.
During the campaign, Obama was photographed carrying Fareed Zakaria's The Post American World. Within a day, increased sales bumped the book from the already lofty number 7 position on Amazon's sales charts to number 4. Likewise, when he was sighted with Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a 2005 book about Lincoln's cabinet, the book's popularity surged.
Shortly after the election, Obama was photographed with the newly released Fred Kaplan's Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, sales shot up. As one observer noted, "Even people who don't generally pay much attention to the book world are scrutinizing those long-shot photographs of [Obama] disembarking from car to plane and back again, trying to read the title of whatever is tucked under his arm."
Then, in a 60 Minutes interview a few weeks after the election. Obama said he had been reading "a new book … about FDR's first 100 days." Obama never mentioned the title. Yet sales of Jonathan Alter's The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, increased 810 percent on Amazon the next day. It quickly rose to number eight on the site's list of bestselling history books. What was besting it? Team of Rivals was Amazon's best selling history book, gaining additional traction as word circulated that Obama was considering appointing Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State.
Just the last two weeks demonstrate the magic might even be increasing.
When Obama attended the Summit of the Americas on April 18, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave him a copy of Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano. Considered a classic in Latin America since its publication in 1971, within 24 hours the book shot from an Amazon sales rank of 54,295 to second. The book, a historical account of the exploitation of Latin America by Europe and the U.S., has since dropped out of the site's top 10 but continues to be the its best selling "popular economics" book.
Less than a week earlier, the Obama family welcomed a dog, "Bo," to the White House. Within days, Bo had his own book, a children’s book called Bo, America’s Commander in Leash.
Even if publishing is going to the dogs in the more traditional sense of the phrase, the book world relishes Obama. At the National Book Awards ceremony in November, emcee Eric Begosian told the crowd that "now we are going to have a president who comes from the literary empathetic complex. Our new president is in the broadest sense of the word… a reader, and a writer."
So, as long as Obama keeps carrying or mentioning books, it seems he will be an economic boon for the book industry. And publishers probably needn't go into total crisis mode if the time comes when he isn't seen carrying books. After all, two books critical of Obama sold nearly half a million copies last year. A book about the media's "slobbering love affair" with Obama hit the bestseller lists less than a month after the inauguration. Together, these suggest an area that may itself be a growth industry in the years to come.
Welcome to the Obama Book Club.
The Power of Words
There's a new spirit in America. From the day Barack Obama embraced technology in his campaign role, reaching millions of people, inviting opinion, touching us where it matters, we knew this was a new nation.
Hearing Obama speak — and sensing he respects the importance of America's individual contributors to democracy and freedom — our work and labor as writers continues to inspire us.
When Pres. Obama signed his first official document, he said: "I was told not to swipe the pen." I'll bet he was indeed tempted to keep the pen, a souvenir of a life-changing moment. We writers and bloggers live by our pens, keyboards, and internet and never felt more hopeful as an industry of entrepreneurs and freelance writers. The President knows the power of words, the meaning of words, and as an author, he knows the value of literature and media in our nation.
We are moved by Obama's efforts, He moves the country forward, he moves us out of oppression, he changes journalism for the better.
Writers on deadline, choked with emotion, write unbiased reports of Obama, but can't hide their pride.
Someone new is in our corner, someone new cares about us: we the people… we who care so much about this country, our personal freedoms and safety. Journalists are the first to rise up and defend the honor of our country, and our president, as he leads us into a new era of freedom, peace and prosperity.
Comment From the Comments Editor
It can only be a matter of time until President Obama or one of his many digital minions turns up to post a comment on Blogcritics in response to one of the many strands of trenchant cultural, social or political pixel life that form the Blogcritics comments space.
That kind of thing is all part of what it means to live in the all new Obama Nation, a conceptual nation that has spread far beyond its Kenya-Hawaii-Chicago roots and out beyond US borders to the world. It's time to wave a not so fond goodbye to the old school, authoritarian, suited and booted ways of the past and enjoy a more inclusive, confident and relaxed style; this is a change of political style even more profound than the change of presidential clothes.
It can be seen in the thoughtful way president Obama actually engages with people at all levels, never dismissing out of hand even the most out there views. This inclusive approach may ruffle the feathers of some but can only increase liberty and democracy at all levels and in many places; just like global politics, the whole media game – modern and online or bewildered and off – is going to have to accommodate this change significantly.
This new to the USA, joined up thinking has been going on in Europe and many other parts of the world for some years now and hopefully it is going to return the USA's political and media titans to the forefront of cultural and political activity. The whole world has just become a whole lot closer to the USA, and the media is going to have a vital role in communicating and developing this new political era.
Change? I think, yes, we can!
(Tomorrow: America's Happy Family, Obama and the Jewish Imagination, Poster Icon)