The Cult of Personality: The Rock Star President or the Selling of the President 2008

When I think of Obama as President, it is hard to envision him as the man who will for the next four years occupy the oval office. I almost think of him as the “Rock Star President”. It remains to be seen how he will shape this country’s present and future over the next four years. When I look at History and what “celebrities” we have had in the White House, the list is few. Some were celebrities when they went in but not when they came out. They are others whose rule and leadership made them celebrities but I have seen nothing like Obama in all my years as a historian.

The closest approximations, or comparisons, may be John F. Kennedy and Reagan. Even with them, the comparisons are not close. George Washington’s legendary status might be a good comparison, but here we have a man, who four years ago, no one had heard of outside of his own state legislative district. I first saw Obama give a speech after his primary win in the 2004 senate race. It was on Channel 7 in Chicago. I was floored by his eloquence and ability to give a speech. To see him four months later catapult onto the national stage at the Democratic Convention was even more inspiring. “The Red States/Blues States/United States” speech I still consider his best speech. Unfortunately, he was not running for President in 2004. He, and the nation, would have to wait four more years.

In that time, the cult of personality surrounding Obama grew slowly. A speech here, a meeting with farmers there, an Oprah show here, the media itself fell in love with Obama. They fawned over him more than any other candidate I have ever seen. To this day, my wife is one of his biggest supporters. I still don’t know why. I voted for the guy out of a belief that the alternative would only drag us further down, but I thought I could listen to this guy for four years and hope he would show good judgment, restore America’s place in the world, and he would not turn a deaf ear to the problems the country faced. I have been wrong before and I may be wrong in four years time, but we will have to wait and see.

I did not make up my mind until about a week before the primary here in Illinois. For me, someone who is tuned in, it was a very long time. But in the end, the cult of personality got to me too. Here’s why:

1. If there was one thing Obama understood, it is what America is today. By this mean – how people get information, find information and process it. His campaign blew the others out of the water. From websites, to MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, text messages, and all other forms of technology inherent in our modern world, Obama’s message was in real time. It was constant. It was forever reaching out.

2. The Arts – whoever came up the posters has to be considered a genius. The first time I saw them, I was floored. Not for their content of design, but I like to call it the “1984” effect. I felt as if Big Brother was running for President but instead of War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, Freedom is Slavery, and Big Brother is Watching You, we had one word posters – Hope – Progress – Change. Then came The Tide is Turning and Yes We Can. Whoever came up with those slogans should be making millions of dollars working as an ad executive on Madison Avenue.

3. The debates – He seemed calm and thoughtful; McCain seemed scatterbrained almost panicked, unsure, mad, and unstable.

Looking back, which is an easy thing to do, one would be hard pressed to find a better campaign that turned their candidate from a nobody into a rock star in a matter of months. Take a look at JFK’s ads from the 1960s.

As a historian, I have a collection of buttons. You may ask yourself why? Well in the 1800s and 1900s, that was one way you get your message out in an era of little or no media. A catchy slogan (or put down) was a better way to get the word out on your candidate. For many decades, that was the way. Thousands went to see a candidate speak. The kind of crowds Obama drew were not uncommon in the past. But Obama differs in the use of media. While his campaign may have mastered the technological aspects of a 21st century campaign, he was not the first to change how politics played out.

Everything changed in 1952 with this little ditty

From then on, I don’t remember a campaign without a good TV ad

And then there was this little attack ad form 1988 that won George HW Bush the election

and of course who can forget the Swift Boat Veterans

But where is the classic Obama ad? His TV ads were all about about positivity and projecting an image of hope.

And now, as President, the first thing done was a total redesign of the White House web site including his YouTube weekly addresses, his executive orders, and proclamations. Like it or not, the transparency is there to a point. But the point is this President hopes to bridge the gap between the generations. Between the X,Y, Z, and Baby Boomer generations. In seeing clips from the balls, he is well on his way. Much the way Reagan transformed the nation in his Presidency through pride, Obama’s message is bridging the gaps between the generations. And this is the big thing – the America of Reagan or even 2000 or 2004 for that matter, is a far different place. A new generation has come of age. A generation weaned on technology. A generation who never knew the Cold War; never knew a life without computers; and never knew a leader whom they could look up to and hope. I hope he doesn’t let them down.


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