The presidency as performance

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009 · 17 Comments »

The New York Times:

In 2007, President George W. Bush stood framed by an array of books to inform the nation that he was sending additional troops to Iraq.

Last night, President Obama surrounded himself with West Point cadets.

Mr. Obama traveled to the United States Military Academy to announce the most critical military decision of his presidency so far: he is sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and setting a time frame for withdrawal beginning in July 2011. Like many a predecessor, Mr. Obama sought a setting that would burnish his bona fides.

Yet what was striking about Mr. Obama’s live television appearance on Tuesday night was his constraint. He stood on a stark stage, alone, not flanked by generals in gleaming medals, and addressed cadets seated far below him in tidy rows. At the close of his address, Mr. Obama stepped down and shook cadets’ hands, but he did not lose himself in the crowd for long.

His speech was sobering, and so was his manner. Mr. Obama may be the one president of the television age who can make a star turn at West Point look like a graduate seminar at Yale.

His body language was as restrained as his promises; he spoke without fanciful flights or filigree. In short, Mr. Obama projected all the caution and sober consideration that he suggested his predecessor had thrown to the winds.

So, a good review on the acting. But what about the direction? The set design? The Times continues:

Presidents often use the Oval Office or a joint session of Congress for major announcements, but some speeches call for more creative scene-setting. Often, presidential stagecraft is subliminally used to answer critics.

Mr. Bush — who was accused of rashly rushing to war in Iraq, and of prematurely claiming victory wearing a flight suit aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln — sought to project wisdom and prolonged reflection about the 2007 surge by standing in front of a White House bookcase crammed with weighty tomes.

Mr. Obama, who has been hammered by Republicans, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, who say he has dithered like an academic, chose the Army’s elite training school to signal his martial spirit and respect for men and women in uniform.

Why do we still go through this pretense of voting? We should just hold auditions. The government is the same; the foreign policy is the same. The military-industrial complex trundles along as ever, forging the path of Empire. The only difference is who’s on TV. Flight suit or sober business attire? Weighty tomes or fresh-faced cadets?

Arthur Silber, on the other hand, is parsing the speech more seriously. I agree with Arthur on the imperial Perpetual Motion Machine and on Obama’s de facto kneecapping of the left (see, for example, this, this, and this). However, I wouldn’t read too much into the particular phraseology of the speech. Unity, common purpose, blah blah. It’s just Jon Favreau riffing in Word.


UPDATE: Glen Ford at BAR has an incisive review of the speech.

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17 Responses to “The presidency as performance”

  1. bob coley jr says:

    “We should just hold auditions”. Isn’t that what is happening already? Spin is the way we decide what we want, not the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. How sad it would be if we were truly informed. (snark)

  2. Violet says:

    Pretty much.

    Is the cult of personality style of politics getting worse, or am I just getting older? It seems completely out of control.

  3. Branjor says:

    Seems the same way to me. It seems like substance and policy don’t count for anything anymore, just style, personality, “coolness.” We may as well pick our presidents on American Idol these days.

  4. bob coley jr says:

    Dr. Socks, The out of control part seems to affect only us voters/non-political insiders. Those that REALLY have control seem to be doing a good job of keeping it. A very, very good job of it!

  5. Arthur Silber says:

    Dr. S.: Thanks for the mention. I hope you’re right that Chief Groper Favreau was simply “riffing.” But I was remembering the steady stream of comments during the Bush administration — people should be “careful” what they say, and so on. It never ended. There was a repetitive drumbeat toward one ultimate end: censorship in some form. And during both World Wars, strict censorship was in place, and people got thrown in jail for reading the Bill of Rights on a street corner. I wrote about all that regularly during those wondrous years; the Bush gang gave me numerous opportunities to do so.

    As I said in my post, in the wake of another 9/11, I can easily see another push, implicit and/or explicit, toward censorship — which is always the end toward which such comments tend. I regard it as a very bad sign that Obama pulls out this kind of crap even now, on the occasion of a policy that every sentient being knew he was going to announce well in advance. God knows, he told us often enough during the campaign.

    And we know all too well the kind of opposition that Democrats would offer. There may be some opposition from Republicans on the basis of pure partisanship, but I think even that is unlikely. The Republicans love this kind of crap when it comes to war, and they certainly loved it during the years of Bush the Horrible.

    I think someone should make a movie about recent presidencies. Suggested title: Shitty and Shittier. What fun we can have determining who is worse than whom!

    Meanwhile, a hell of a lot of people suffer and die, both abroad and at home. What an abominable spectacle.

  6. Violet says:

    I hope you’re right that Chief Groper Favreau was simply “riffing.”

    I may not be. I don’t know, given a different frame of mind, I might take it the same way you did. I’ve been down that path before.

    But this speech just struck me as air. None of it makes a goddamn bit of sense. The whole Af-Pak thing doesn’t make a goddamn bit of sense, which is probably why the speech is so empty. They have to say something that sounds good and fills up the space.

    I actually got a little hysterically punchy at one point because it sounded like Obama was wishing for 9-11 to happen again.

  7. Grace says:

    I may sound fixated on Obama’s duplicity, but I always got the feeling that now after he won the election and got the title of “president” he doesn’t know what the hell to do anymore. Because he already accomplished THE GOAL, it felt good to win, he looks good in the W.H., he has nice teeth and is photogenic, etc, etc. He always said during the debates that he wasn’t a “micro manager” and that he would delegate to others if elected president. The reality is that he doesn’t know how to be president; and/or how to defend policies like health care or this stupid war of “necessity.”

    The passion is gone because for the first time it’s no longer about him, perhaps with the exception of getting relected in 2012.That is when he will probably show a renewed interest.

  8. madamab says:

    Yeah, I’m with Grace. He doesn’t know how to BE President. He only knows how to RUN FOR President. And, make speeches that all sound the same.

    Honestly, that speech had absolutely nothing to do with Afghanistan. I can easily Mad Lib an Obama speech right now for you. (OK, I did this on 11/20 on Corrente. Mea culpa.)

    “My fellow Americans, I have come here today to talk to you honestly, plainly, and without fear about a very difficult issue: (insert name of issue here).

    Now, feelings are running high about (issue). On the one hand, some say (insert straw man here). On the other hand, some say (insert another straw man here).

    Now, let me be clear. I have set forth the following principle, and I believe in it absolutely. (Insert innocuous-sending pap here.)

    I will neither give in to the naysayers on one side, nor pander to the cheerleaders on the other side. That I promise you. The road will be long, and the struggle will be hard, but we will come out of this a better, more prosperous and more morally clear nation. We are the shining city on the hill, and we will ensure that the world knows exactly where we stand. Our hearts are pure, and we stand ready to lead this country forward into the 21st century with all faith and belief in the beauty and promise of the American people.

    May God bless the United States of America. Thank you.”

    What’s the point of even dissecting them? They’re all the freaking same. We all know what he’s going to do anyway, as Arthur pointed out. He just looks in the mirror and asks, “WWWD?” (What Would W Do?), then does it.

  9. Keri says:

    When Obama said “let me be clear” my first thought was- Nixon! “let me be perfectly clear” how often did Nixon say that? Seems like in every speech I can remember from when he was president.

    I was a young kid then (born 1966) but Nixon’s speechmaking tics are an ingrained memory. When I was a kid my parents watched every political show and CBS news with Walter Cronkite every night, and wanted us kids to be informed about the world so we watched too. I knew at three years old what it meant when someone was “sent to Vietnam” (my paternal uncle was drafted in late 1969, but luckier than most, was sent to Thailand rather than Vietnam. Even with that though he came back against the war and to this day never speaks of his time over there. Even when a person went to Thailand people still called it “being sent to Vietnam”

    I remember asking as a 3 year old where my uncle was and being told “he was sent to Vietnam” I remember feeling really scared for my uncle and not needing to get anymore information to understand what that meant- I watched the news with my parents every night and saw the reports from Vietnam and the weekly memorial picture segment of the soldiers that had died that week.

  10. bruce nahin says:

    And this is Change we can Believe in?

  11. Nessum says:

    I only watched some of the speech; with the sound turned off. As usual it looked like he had no sense of what he was reading and he seemed completely detached from the audience and fully concentrated on the teleprompters.

    After the speech it was painful to witness how he grabbed a female cadet by the shoulder and literally forced her to turn towards the cameras, whereupon he turned on his automatic grin. (Remember when he told the troops recently: “You guys make a pretty good photo op.”!)

    And what’s with all the waving, all the time!?

  12. Grace says:

    I agree with Nessum and Madamab; it’s always about performance and image, the teleprompters, the rehearsed smile, the “cool” way of walking, touching people’s right shoulder with his left hand while shaking their right hand. This last feature of his political repertoire is meant to be manipulative, condescending, and calculating.

    The last speech was, like all the other speeches, about HIM. May be he is not as intelligent as his acolytes have portrayed him to be, because he doesn’t seem to get the fact that he now needs to produce and deliver if he wants to survive. Unless he is perfectly aware but early in the game settled for having his legacy in U.S. history as the first black president.

  13. Bob Della Valle says:

    Your idea that we eliminate elections and hold auditions instead is brilliant – same script, different lead actors. Bush wowed us with malapropisms and twisted phrases- you were never sure what the cat was saying – while Obama speaks flawlessly. Yet in the end it all comes out the same – a jive-ass on TV spouting empty nonsense while the military plays on.

  14. Donald W. Paulus says:

    The President is one super slick politico that’s for sure. His performance on this speech is amazing. How can one so neatly dress up the coming fiasco that Afghanistan is and will be? It’s like preparing a corpse for a night at the prom. Vietnam here we go again. Oh, yes, get ready for one term Mr. Obama and for handing over the keys to the White House to Sarah Palin come January 2013. That ought to guarantee you a place in American History. Or a bust in the hall of infamy.

  15. Change We Can Believe In « The Feminist Texican says:

    [...] Leftist: The presidency as performance Why do we still go through this pretense of voting?…The military-industrial complex trundles [...]

  16. Rosemary Molloy says:

    Madamab’s speech mock-up is simply brilliant. I didn’t watch the performance–just couldn’t bring myself to do it, but read it later. Paid close attention to Arthur Silber’s predictions about it, too–the content and the reactions, which were right on the money. But all these good nay-sayers are following the master, Orwell. Are kids ever assigned “1984″ these days? Guess they don’t need to read it–they’re starting to live it.

  17. Lao Tzua says:

    Yes, you are right – one term on purpose, followed by inauguration as PRESIDENT OF THE WORLD. It’s all in place – he is already Chairman of the U.N. Security Council. (Unconstitutional, yes – and also on purpose.)

    Next is the Copenhagen Treaty – look for it. The more we can be convinced to obsess about Sarah Palin, the easier it all gets…..