McCain’s attack on Obama in 2008 — after the junior Senator came virtually out of nowhere fueled by a home run speech at a previous Democratic Convention — was that he was more a celebrity than a person of substance, less a statesman than a sensation. Driven by the cool graphics of the ’08 campaign, Obama’s message of hope (when the country was desperate for some), his youthfulness, his powerful oratorical skills, his complete comfort around the camera and his natural comfort with and solicitation of media and pop culture indeed turned the charismatic and inexperienced Senator into an iconic figure before he had established his broader public identity as a politician. Even after elected, the “prospective action” of the Nobel Committee in awarding him the peace prize was another event to reinforce the “aura” — and blur the distinction.
The problem with the celebrity critique, however, is that it doesn’t hold water. Obama has more than evidenced his substance. In this era of crisis, polarization and gridlock, people can debate Obama’s political ideology and the facets of his personality until the cows come home. It’s incontrovertible to the vast majority of people, however, antagonists as well as advocates, that Obama owns more than enough substance, weight and especially, intelligence and temperament, to justify where he sits.
What’s fascinating however, is that the celebrity versus substance argument, in Obama’s case, is not an either-or proposition. The truth is: Obama is (also) a celebrity, a rock star, a cultural icon, as likely to be hanging with Leno, Stewart or Beyoncé as Merkel or Putin. And what’s even more interesting, even if this makes some people uneasy to hear it flat out, is that the cool and the celebrity is a powerful reflection of what engages and drives American contemporary culture.
That’s what’s so spot-on about those earrings and this photograph. Between my rock star, my President (at least for this older voter with the designer glasses), there is no discrepancy.
(photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images caption: A woman wears earrings with a picture of U.S. President Barack Obama as he speaks during a campaign rally at the Delray Beach Tennis Center on October 23, 2012 in Delray Beach, Florida. Obama continues to campaign across the U.S. in the run-up to the November 6, presidential election.)