(So, President Barack Obama celebrated his first 100 days in office last night by chatting with reporters – the man is not taciturn. Mostly, he felt compelled to remind us that he is not George W. Bush. Equally importantly, we at Blogcritics continue our series on Obama's fascinating relationship with popular culture. Please see part one "ObamaRama, The Beginning," and part two, "ObamaRama, The Sequel." EO)
The Obamas as America’s Happy Family
Lisa Solod Warren
There is an English card game called Happy Families; it’s a simple game in which one chooses cards to assemble a happy family. Barack Obama has done just that. The somewhat glamorous and adoring mother-in-law who serves as grandmother/babysitter to his two young and gorgeous daughters; the beautiful, intelligent, fit and articulate working wife, and all are rounded out by the trim and gainfully employed husband and father who is both trying to save the world and still manages to spend time with the wife and kids.
I have no doubt that Barack Obama’s approval rating of 66 percent is due in part to his Happy Family. Despite the 50 percent divorce rate in the United States there are still enough happy families left in this country who are rooting for the success of the Obamas, who really want them to grow, thrive and succeed.
People are thrilled to see two lovely young children who aren’t yet jaded—no matter what their color — running with a sweet young puppy on the White House lawn. It doesn’t hurt that Michelle is planting a garden with dozens of other children, either; or that she wears clothes from J. Crew or that she has the star power of the late Princess Diana and the warmth of your best friend, despite her Ivy League education.
The fact that the Obamas, both from lower middle class origins, are now occupying the highest office in the land, is better than reality television. Better than Anna Nicole or Britney rising from the trailer park, better even than winning the lottery. Rumor has it that scores of young black men and women even abandoned their ghetto speak when Obama became president, and that is indeed cool to be smart, no matter how the Republicans try to spin it. It’s cool to be married, happy, and smart. It’s cool to think before you speak, to read book, and to be happy in your marriage. It’s cool to have your mother-in-law live with you.
And it’s cool to be present and accounted for. Even if a lot of people don’t have jobs, it’s cool to see someone who does and to see him really work.
Remember Ronald Reagan and his afternoon naps? Remember how George Bush all but disappeared in his last couple of years in office, mimicking those Where’s Waldo books more than anything else. We couldn’t find him to save ourselves. But President Obama is around. He’s everywhere: traveling to foreign countries, giving press conferences, appearing on You Tube, making speeches; he’s on television, and he and Michelle are on the cover of every possible magazine, smiling and telling us how great life is.
We may not agree with every decision he makes—even those on the left, even those who voted for him — are sometimes disappointed. Many still wait to see what will happen.
But no one can say that he’s shirked his duty during his first 100 days. He’s been busy. Boy, has he been busy. He got straight down to work and he’s earned his pay. Unlike the guys he bailed out: the paper pushers and the office decorators, and the men who brought down banks and insurance companies, those men who swindled and lied and cheated and stole and still took home obscene bonuses, Obama has, at the least, put in 16-hour days working. No naps for him. The wrinkles and the exhaustion and the gray hairs are already showing.
I think the Obamas are what we would like to be and have. They are the perfect nuclear family: two kids, nice house, someone to live in and help, good job for the dad, work that matters for mom, excellent educations. They live meaningful lives, knowing that what they do makes a difference; when they talk people listen. They have each other to bounce things off of. There is real love there. And then there’s that damned darling dog.
Will it last? Can happiness ever? Who knows? But isn’t it nice to know that at the least they’re giving it their best shot.
Barack Obama and the Jewish Imagination Jon Sobel
When President Obama hosted a seder at the White House, it surprised many. No President had ever done such a thing before. Certainly it was a gesture of inclusiveness towards American Jews, whose support Obama the candidate had actively sought, and who have strong political influence on any sitting President.
It was also theater, in perhaps the best sense – a narrative brought to life on the national stage. One tale being told was, of course, the traditional Passover story of the Jews' escape from bondage in Egypt. But also on the menu was the ongoing story of Barack Obama, a complex man whose personality, for the next four years at least, won't be fully distinguishable from the demands of his unbelievably complex job.
Like most of his religious activities, the seder appeared to mean something personal to Obama. Though a Christian, he has always been more of a seeker than a religious doctrinaire. Paying respect to Islam, rarely talking about Jesus (at least in public), thoughtfully dealing with the Reverend Wright controversy during his campaign, and now holding a seder – all these have signaled the spirit of a masterful politician, yes, but one driven by (in his own campaign catchword) hope rather than cynicism, intellect rather than dogma.
Of course we Jews are a very quarrelsome people. (Witness the old joke about the two Jews rescued from a desert island; they'd built three synagogues, "the one I go to, the one he goes to, and over there is the one we don't go to.") Two of Obama's closest advisors, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, are Jewish, but so were most of the architects of neoconservative foreign policy.
Some, especially in Israel, viewed the White House seder as a stunt to help generate support among liberal American Jews for policies that might clash with the new Netanyahu government. Others pointed to the absence of Emanuel and Axelrod as evidence that the White House didn't take the event seriously, though it seems churlish to fault the advisors for wanting to spend the holiday with their families. But most reaction in the US was positive.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch (an Orthodox sect), saw in the seder the continuation of "a trend of an interest by the White House in things Jewish… Anytime people can get a better understanding of why we do what we do, it's probably good for the Jews. Ignorance of Jewish practices historically led to unnecessary tension and even blood libels, specifically around the time of Passover."
In this sense, the seder can be seen as a model for the American people of tolerance and understanding, in the same way a White House garden is spoken of as a model for a national greener way of life. Rev. Tom Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, put the seder into a Christian context: "It is impossible to understand the Eucharist without understanding the Passover meal," he said, adding that the White House seder "shows respect and solidarity."
The President himself referred to the story of Passover as "among the most powerful stories of suffering and redemption in human history," and noted, idealistically if a bit stiffly, that "as part of a larger global community, we all must work to ensure that our brothers and sisters of every race, religion, culture and nationality are free from bondage and repression, and are able to live in peace."
Hopeful words. But we should hope for nothing less from a man who earned the votes of nearly 80% of American Jews; who churned "hope" into a movement that carried him to the White House; and who, in the process, broke the biggest racial barrier of all, to personally embody the dream of a global community living in peace.
The Obama Poster Icon: From Zero to Cliche in 6 Months
Of all the legacies of the Obama presidency, the one which may last the
longest in the cultural imagination is the enormously popular poster image created by artist Shepard Fairey. The high-contrast, vertically split image has gone viral on the internet and assumed a place in the visual lexicon of American pop art alongside Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe triptych (from which Fairey kind of stole the design idea) and the Eugene McCarthy dove poster.
Fairey got into a certain amount of trouble for infringing the copyright of an AP photograph he used as a source, but his payback is that everyone on the internet has since pirated his design concept for icons of themselves, their girlfriend or their dog to use on the web as a subtle dig at Obama or a statement of support and conformity.
Making your own Obama poster icon has been made much easier by the folks at Paste Magazine who have provided a neat little Flash tool which will let you take any photo, turn it into an icon in the style of the Fairey poster, tweak it and customize it and add a new slogan to the bottom and make it your own. You can use the tool to parody Obama, iconify anyone or anything else, or convey some more obscure message.
One of my personal favorites is the icon of "TOTUS," Obama's teleprompter, but I have to admit to doing a few of my own, including an image of Aleister Crowley titled "Beast" and one of Rahm Emanuel titled "Puppeteer."
Getting good results from the tool requires a certain amount of practice and it helps a lot to have the right photograph to work from. Some faces just
don't work well at all. My face and to an even greater extent Aleister Crowley's face have the problem that there are too many light and dark areas and too many variations in shade and angle. Other faces have too little differentiation and just come out kind of one color. It helps to have a high contrast photo and to reduce it to black and white before working with it. Plus you need a knack for pithy one-word tags for your icons.
The idea is kind of fun to play with, but in the 6 months since the election it has really already been done to death. You're not about to see the icon to the left on my Facebook page.
It may be the mark of truly successful pop art that in such a short period it has gone beyond a fad and evolved into a cliche. The fact that Fairey's design concept can be emulated so effectively by a simple Flash tool raises the question which has plagued pop art since the era of Warhol; it's trendy and it's popular, but is it really art?
(Tomorrow we wrap the series with a look at how a leftward turn in the culture helped Obama become pres, and we attempt to define The Man.)