January 15, 2014

Latest Pushback to The White House Photo Op: President "That Guy" Meets the Millennials

I found that I was so accustomed to his voice, how he holds his body, his aura, that ignoring him in person is as easy as ignoring a TV. Easier, in fact. He stops being the president and starts being That Guy Who You See In Tweets, That Guy Who Gives Speeches, That Guy.

— from “What Happens When the President Sits Down Next to You at a Cafe” (Robinson Meyer for The Atlantic)

In the daily visual battle for hearts and minds, there is an assumption that the presidential photo op actually works; that it has the capacity to endear and to sway; that visual alignment with a cause or group can actually engender greater affinity. But what happens when the game starts to suffer from its own blatancy? With the talking point ringing through the hills and valleys that Obamacare has a critical need to sign up many more 18-34 year olds, yesterday’s foray came as no surprise. With Pete Souza in tow, the President ventured out amongst the masses once again, with the aim this day of chilling with a group of 18-34 year olds at a DC cafe.

What was unexpected, however (mindful that unexpected twists hardly ever come out of these staged events), is that one Robinson Meyer, an 18-34 year old writer for The Atlantic happened to be in said cafe, the fact he was already sitting there causing the journalist, fully social media-enabled, to be grandfathered into the background as one more Joe citizen.

Relevant to his own membership in the demographic, and less than a news cycle later, we had Meyer’s repurposing of the framing. I’m not referring to his wry tone, however, as much as his reaction to the presence of the President as, frankly, ho-hum. As aware as young people are that the society they live in is one giant spin zone, Meyer’s amusingly self-deprecating account of Obama talking music, cell phones, Instagram and Facebook with these young people is, at the same time, disarming and merciless. What is particularly adept, however, is the way Meyer uses the product of the exercise, the White House photo, to essentially invalidate its function.

Sure, we can debate the genuineness or artifice of Obama the “everyman,” the naturalness or unnaturalness of Obama’s ultra-rapt expression or even the discordant look of the young woman with the scarf. But how does that even matter anymore when a White House PR gesture suddenly morphs into something fittingly incongruous — a Robinson Meyer sighting, and ultimately, the 18-35 year old’s photo op?

(You’ve gotta love Robinson’s photo credit, by the way. Photo: Pete Souza/The White House. Caption: The author, at “work.”)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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