May 24, 2013
Slouching Toward Washington
Posted on Apr 12, 2012
By Ebony Utley
“Branding Obamessiah: The Rise of an American Idol”
Although the sacred six are an unoriginal appropriation from the world of advertising, Taylor neatly grafts them onto the 2008 presidential campaign by beginning with Obama’s creation story of racial angst during his childhood in Hawaii. Taylor goes to great pains to argue that Obama’s memories within “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” were manipulated to create a racial consciousness that Obama most likely did not experience and furthermore did not even write. He critiques the text for having “so little real evidence of abject, institutional racism,” and suggests that “Obama understood the power of race to open doors, and so he created a story that would make his skin’s color more vivid.”
As evenhanded as Taylor is throughout the book, his dismissal of Obama is rarely as stark as when he claims being a black boy in Hawaii couldn’t have been that bad. Irrespective of who crafted Obama’s memoir and why, Taylor is wrong to dismiss Obama’s account of racial trauma. An outsider has no right to estimate the psychological impact of racism, especially if the outsider has never lived as a person of color.
In the same way that race is a key word in “Dreams from My Father,” hope and change were the sacred words of Obama’s campaign. Whether used individually or combined as hope for change, Obama’s words addressed Americans’ desperate need for anything other than the George W. Bush legacy. So desperate were his constituents that no one ever queried the actual meaning of the terms. Taylor points out that “ ‘change’ doesn’t indicate direction, ‘hope’ isn’t a strategy and ‘believe’ doesn’t refer to an object beyond itself.” Taylor historicizes the consistency of “change” as a presidential campaign motif, but explains how Obama embodied change as a young, handsome, part-black political novice who starkly contrasted his opponents’ stagnant “experience.” He continues:
Similarly, the sacred images of the campaign asked audiences to project positive messages onto Obama’s visual representations. Not only was Obama depicted with halos of light above his head, but visual incorporations of Obama imagery with figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. “made him into an historical figure before he even had a chance to make history,” according to Ron English, an artist quoted by Taylor. Lest he get too wrapped up in history, Taylor explores Obama’s rock star appeal by analyzing his appearances in Rolling Stone, Vibe and other popular magazines. Because an unflattering picture of the presidential candidate never emerged, each handsome, virile image made Obama increasingly attractive to voters. Additionally, Taylor describes how “Team Obama” masterminded “logobama”—a logo that would appeal to everyone at once. The open O of the campaign logo allowed various communities to accommodate their individual priorities into Obama’s message.
Throughout the book, Taylor assures readers that nothing was left to chance during the Obama campaign. And although he never says that the 10 rallies where women attendees passed out and were sympathetically acknowledged by Obama were staged, one wonders about the regularity of the ritual and begins to view Team Obama with an aura of suspicion. Taylor describes Team Obama’s uncanny knack for maximizing social media, and how some sectors of the ailing economy profited from Obama paraphernalia and tours of his Hyde Park, Chicago haunts.
Not only did Obama believers swoon and faint at rallies, follow him on Facebook and buy merchandise, but his devotees voted for him because the campaign focused on his parasocial relationships with the public. People who didn’t know Obama became convinced that they could have a beer with him, play a game of pickup basketball or have dinner with his beautiful family. People simply loved him. His Hollywood appeal even persuaded celebrities to contribute to the “Barockstar” idolization.
Taylor concludes where he began, discussing the role of race in Obama’s appeal. He writes, “Obama’s skin was a magnet, pulling black voters together in one near-monolithic block, unmovable and resounding with his praises.” All the while absolving white voters of their guilt. Blacks and whites could vote for their first black president and be proud of how far their country had come. And so they did.
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