By Nancy Snow
I am a child of the Sixties, just like the President-elect. We grew up in the Seventies and took on our adult responsibilities in the Eighties and beyond. Just knowing that this president was probably listening to a lot of the same R&B and Classic Oldies that I listened to growing up, I feel a natural affinity for Barack Obama as a person. I certainly don’t know him and will likely never meet him, but I’m intrigued at what he symbolizes for America and its leadership in the world.
Barack Obama is the best marketing vehicle to come our way since the Marlboro Man, which is, according to Advertising Age, one of the most recognized American commercial symbols in the world. And now that he’s given up smoking, he’s a much healthier global symbol of America than a rugged cowboy representing a product that could shorten your life. The Obama logo alone (http://farm1.static.flickr.com/165/428458245_079bd3ff25.jpg?v=1174423247) is the Nike swoosh of politics. Hillary Clinton had no match for it. She was the Microsoft PC to his Mac. And we know which is cooler. Her pitiable response to Obama’s freshness—that he was “frankly, naïve” about meeting with the heads of rogue nations didn’t matter. Hillary Clinton in the primary season and later John McCain in the general election made the fatal mistake of believing that experience really did matter. In 2008, being a policy wonk from Washington was the political equivalent of being voted off early from American Idol, into oblivion.
Looking back at the Obama campaign, his ability to win was strengthened by two tipping points in the American psyche that occurred weeks apart but seemed so timely as to have been masterminded by the best pageant event organizer. The first was Caroline Kennedy’s January 2008 op-ed endorsement of Barack Obama in the New York Times. I was teaching opinion writing at Cal State Fullerton at the time and part of my class preparation included culling examples of good opinion writing in the popular media. When I came across Kennedy’s op-ed, I told my students that the op-ed was worth its weight in gold. It wasn’t so much what she said in the body of the op-ed or how eloquently she said it. In fact, her prose was quite pedestrian. What really mattered was the symbolism, the fact that it was Caroline Kennedy’s byline and her obvious endorsement in the title of the piece, “A President Like My Father.” To the junior senator from New York, Hillary Clinton, it had to be the writing equivalent of a stake to the heart.
Caroline Kennedy’s last two paragraphs sealed the political passing of the baton:
I want a president who understands that his responsibility is to articulate a vision and encourage others to achieve it; who holds himself, and those around him, to the highest ethical standards; who appeals to the hopes of those who still believe in the American Dream, and those around the world who still believe in the American ideal; and who can lift our spirits, and make us believe again that our country needs every one of us to get involved.
I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president — not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans.[i]
There is no such thing as a Royal Family in America, but the second closest resemblance is the Kennedy family. Two brothers ran for president, one won, and both saw their lives cut short by an assassin’s bullet. John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy were involved in the turbulent civil rights issues of the 1960s. In May 1961, seven years before his death (when he was serving as Attorney General to his brother, the President), Robert Kennedy gave an interview to the Voice of America. He predicted that the picture of America in racial turmoil would change in time. “There’s no question that in the next thirty or forty years a Negro can also achieve the same position that my brother has as President of the United States, certainly within that period of time.”[ii] With some technical improvements—moving the date of the interview from 1961 to 1968 (the year he was assassinated) and dropping the thirty year reference altogether— Kennedy’s quote was popularized in 2008 as this: “There’s no question about it. In the next 40 years a Negro can achieve the same position that my brother has.”[iii] Obama’s DNA alone allowed his political communications and marketing specialists to present their candidate as the 2008 fulfillment of this 1968 dream.
The second major tipping point was the Barack Obama Rock Star status in popular mass media. This wasn’t a candidate just being analyzed within the pages of Foreign Policy or Foreign Affairs journals. Obama was a man of the people and of People.
The March 20, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone shows the earnest young face of one Barack Obama with the massive headline, “A New Hope.” Obama had lost the California primary in February but he was winning the marketing race, helped along by that other arms race in politics called fundraising. Below the Obama headline was the prescient header in much smaller font: “Hillary’s Last Stand.” Any commuter just glancing at this magazine cover would know what that implied. Hillary Rodham Clinton was doomed.
Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone, gushed off the pages of his magazine in his personal endorsement:
The tides of history are rising higher and faster these days. Read them right and ride them, or be crushed. And then along comes Barack Obama, with the kinds of gifts that appear in politics but once every few generations. There is a sense of dignity, even majesty, about him, and underneath that ease lies a resolute discipline. It’s not just that he is eloquent—with that ability to speak both to you and to speak for you—it’s that he has a quality of thinking and intellectual and emotional honesty that is extraordinary.[iv]
Last summer I heard about “Barack Steady,” which used the melody of the Whispers’ “Rock Steady,” circa 1987. By that same fall Will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” remix of Obama’s speech had exploded on YouTube. At first, I reacted negatively with a sense of “have we finally come to this? The total manufacturing and branding of a presidential candidate!?” It seemed to me that Barack Obama’s slogan “Yes We Can!” wasn’t too far removed from Robert Redford’s character Bill McKay (“For a better way: Bill McKay!”) in the 1972 film, The Candidate. The late great actor Peter Boyle played McKay’s political consultant, Marvin Lucas, to whom McKay turns to after his victory party and says, “Marvin, what do we do now?” Marvin doesn’t answer. He has no answer, because his work is done. This film, reflective of the political cynicism of the early 1970s, shows a desperate candidate who is anxious about actually having to govern because he has been manufactured like ice cream.
So how does one fully capture the power of the making of brand Obama? One has to wonder now: Which came first? The iconography of Barack’s steadiness to placate the celebrity aspect of Barack Obama’s candidacy? Or was it Obama’s steady and cool handling of the international spotlight? The latter was on display in his very presidential speech in Berlin:
I come to Berlin as so many of my countrymen have come before. Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for President, but as a citizen — a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world.
I know that I don’t look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken in this great city. The journey that led me here is improbable. My mother was born in the heartland of America, but my father grew up herding goats in Kenya. His father – my grandfather — was a cook, a domestic servant to the British.
At the height of the Cold War, my father decided, like so many others in the forgotten corners of the world, that his yearning — his dream — required the freedom and opportunity promised by the West. And so he wrote letter after letter to universities all across America until somebody, somewhere answered his prayer for a better life.
No one then, in July 2008, could have with 100 percent certainty predicted that this man would actually go on to become the 44th president of the United States. But his words about not looking like the other Americans who had spoken in Berlin—John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan—were true, yet misleading. He is America, as surely as California is America or New York is America. As surely as Hawaii is America.
As First Lady of California Maria Shriver said about Obama when she, along with Caroline Kennedy and Oprah Winfrey, endorsed him in California: “The more I thought about it, I thought, you know, if Barack Obama were a state, he’d be California: diverse, open, smart, independent, bucks tradition, innovative, inspiring, dreamer, leader.”
Though Obama did not win the California primary, he laid the foundation there for a big win in the general, especially with minorities. One of out four voters in California’s Democratic primary was Latino. Obama secured the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times, in whose media market 60 percent of all Latino voters reside and of La Opinion, a leading Latino newspaper in that state.
California’s population is 60.9% White American, 6.1% Black or African American, 12.4% Asian American, 16.4% other races, 0.7% American Indian, 3.1% mixed race. Over one-third (35.5%) are Hispanic or Latino (of any race), and 43.3% of the population is non-Hispanic white. That Obama state, California, is home to the fifth largest population of African-Americans in the United States, an estimated 2,163,530 residents. California’s Asian population is estimated at 5 million, approximately one-third of the nation’s 14.9 million Asian Americans. California’s Native American population of 376,093 is the most of any state. The state of California has the largest minority population in the United States, making up 57% of the state population.
Obama is very much an American brand icon. America is, under the 44th president of the United States, “the world’s home away from home.” But America is still the brand land of commercialism and self-promotion, so upon further reflection I see now that Obama commercial tie-ins made sense. This powerful marketing machine was necessary not only to engineer his win, but also to establish him as a powerful symbol of change and hope for people to believe in. This child of the Sixties knew that to win hearts and minds you need to capture the audience’s attention through positive association. And what is more powerful than the kind of visual and audio associations that make people want to jump to their feet? Give the people something to dance to in times of trouble! (If nothing else, you’ve got to give us children of the 60s and 70s our props when it comes to some good dance music).
As an academic, I am often in the classroom during times of national political contests or international strife. When the economic and political times are not that good at the macro level, the level of interest and involvement from students in the classroom often ticks upward. My first teaching opportunity while still a doctoral student was an introduction to peace and conflict resolution at The American University in Washington, D.C. It coincided with Desert Shield, the lead-in mobilization to what we quickly called the “CNN War” or Desert Storm. I recall having ROTC students and peace-loving anti-war students. I invited both pro- and anti-war guest lecturers whose only requirement I had was to be themselves and to tell the truth as they knew it. I did not direct the dialogue but offered up their perspectives so that students could draw their own conclusions and think for themselves.
I try at times like these to remain emotionally detached and nonpartisan about hotly-contested political contests, the hottest to the touch being the election of the American president. I do this so that I can avoid becoming a proselytizer by elevating my own or anyone’s ideological or partisan positions.
I’m not always very successful at this detachment. I’m a public scholar. I make my living observing and writing about the political communications environment and most of what I have to say is strongly opinionated and judgmental. I share my observations and perspectives with broader and more diverse publics beyond the academy through blogging, posting on my Web site, giving public lectures, and engaging with other souls on social networking sites like Facebook. When I do a radio, print or television interviews, the moderator or reporter isn’t satisfied with a mushy middle-of-the-road type answer. They seek out public scholars to add subjective interpretation of events. Once my students become aware of my public scholarship, they are generally not satisfied with a “no comment” about all things politics.
So here is a strong conclusion about this historic presidential election from one who observes politics and communications:
I declare that Brand Obama has trumped Brand America. Barack Obama’s candidacy from the time he gave his memorable speech, “The Audacity of Hope” at the 2004 Democratic Convention to his Victory speech in Grant Park Chicago on November 4, 2008 was a triumph in marketing a relatively obscure political neophyte into a figure whose visage is likely to grace Mount Rushmore someday. Barack Obama has become the most iconic American president since Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.
As Mathew Creamer of Advertising Age observed:
Using his strong rhetorical skills, he spoke with John F. Kennedy’s vocabulary of change and renewal translated into a master narrative reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” all the while evincing Bill Clinton’s talent for forging human connections. Even Ross Perot’s imprint was felt in Mr. Obama’s l ate-in-the-game prime-time infomercial shown in a seven-network roadblock, except this time the homely, big-eared, white guy crunching numbers was replaced with a handsome, big-eared, black guy delivering a much-more-appropriate-for-prime-time message.[v]
This presidential election cycle college age students were more energized than they had been in decades. Politico.com reported that “President-elect Barack Obama’s 34-point margin of victory with voters under 30 was the largest in a generation, cut across lines of class, color and education—and [became] the most impressive youth mandate in modern American history…Sixty-six percent of voters under age 30 preferred Obama while just 32 percent favored McCain—nearly four times the size of John F. Kennedy’s lead with the group in 1960, which led him to famously declare in his inaugural address that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”[vi]
The day after the election, we all returned to our daily lives. My new normalcy was to teach two public diplomacy classes at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. One student from China asked if I were going to put Obama’s win into perspective during class time. Even though we had plenty of other topics to cover as outlined in the syllabus, I promised that I would, knowing that the students wanted to share their reactions. There was a central theme that day. They kept saying that America is back, they were proud of their country’s decision on November 4, and are proud to be Americans more than ever. My Chinese student said that she felt proud for America and that it was now okay in her eyes for Americans to be proud. The last eight years had been a time of apologies and missteps and to her we had now redeemed ourselves with the filling in of our collective ballot sheets.
Barack Obama’s biography, DNA, and rhetoric opens up so many possibilities for my students, including the ability to wear two hats—as American citizens and as global diplomats. It occurred to me on that day that we may very well be seeing the beginnings of presidential leadership that co-inspires mutual trust instead of conspires to undermine public will. I couldn’t help but notice that the Google News Web site had what seemed like hundreds of articles about the global goodwill coming out of the decisive Obama victory. It is as if the world’s arms were embracing us, perhaps for a moment in time, but possibly in preparation for something truly transformative in American foreign policy.
Obama’s victory speech on November 4 was beyond anything Bill Clinton could have delivered in 1992, or George Bush could have in 2000:
And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world – our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down – we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security – we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.[vii]
As I listened I thought back to my first book, Propaganda, Inc.: Selling America’s Culture to the world. It was a play on the United States Information Agency motto, “telling America’s story to the world.” As a cultural affairs specialist at the agency from 1992-1994, I recall thinking it’s America’s diverse stories, not the official story about America, that is our best advertising campaign to the world. Why just tell one? Now, along comes one Barack Obama who embodies that philosophy.
As Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakariah said after the election on November 4, 2008:
Americans seem to understand that bloviating about ‘USA as Number One’ is cheap rhetoric, divorced from the real world. They sense that the real challenge for Washington is not to boast about America’s might but to use its capacities — military, political, intellectual — to work with others to create a more stable, peaceful and prosperous world in which American interests and ideals will be secure.[viii]
“We’re One Among Many Ones” may be this nation’s new smart power motto.
Nancy Snow is Associate Professor of Public Diplomacy in the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. She serves as Senior Fellow in the USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California. Snow is lead editor with Philip M. Taylor (University of Leeds, UK) the 2008 Rutledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy.
[i] Caroline Kennedy, “A President Like My Father,” The New York Times, January 27, 2008.
[ii] “Crisis in Civil Rights,” Time, June 2, 1961.
[iii] “And Still They Rise,” Irishabroad.com, November 12, 2008.
[iv] Jann S. Wenner, “A New Hope,” Rolling Stone, March 20, 2008, 35.
[v] 1 Matthew Creamer, “Barack Obama and Audacity of Marketing,” Adage.com, November 10, 2008.
[vi] “Obama has historic youth mandate,” www.Politico.com, November 8, 2008.
[vii] Barack Obama, “A World That Stands as One,” Spiegel Online International, July 24, 2008.