Friday, August 21, 2009

A Fickle Electorate and the First Celebrity-in-Chief

A new poll depicts that 49 percent of Americans possess a large amount of confidence in President Obama's leadership, as opposed to more than 60 percent at the President’s 100th day in office around the beginning of May. The conventional thinking is that the rigors of the heated health care debate, and little gaffes here and there such as the whole “Beer Summit” episode, have gradually scratched some of the bloom off of the rose. But I see a larger dynamic at work: the predictable, very American dismantling of the cult of celebrity that has surrounded Obama from the start—and which, for the longest time, served his gain.

Obama is a person equipped with enormous talents: remarkable intelligence; eloquent speaking gifts; persuasive passion; pragmatic ideas; and a compelling life story and background. These attributes combined with the ubiquitous power of social media dovetailing with a widespread disdain of the Republican leadership to sweep the first-term Senator to a landslide victory last November. Obama’s rise was meteoric, catalyzed by a rousing speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention when he was still a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and taken to new heights when he launched his presidential campaign just two years after being sworn into his seat. It’s hard to recall any President in modern times being elected after such a short span within the public consciousness. Jimmy Carter (perhaps not the most favorable analogy for Obama) comes the closest.

Our culture loves to create celebrities out of once-obscure individuals. We have lived and breathed this through our 15-years-and-running fascination with reality television shows, in particular. Paris Hilton is just one example of someone famous for no particular reason other than inheriting fame and fortune. The various bachelors, bachelorettes, island survivors and other winners/losers fill out the rest of the case. We have created a whole new genre of celebrity, those famous for simply being famous but adding little to the advancement of any particular profession or social need.

And just as we love to build up and celebrate these nouveau popular, we take particular sport in tearing them down as soon as they dare to be as human as the rest of us: making occasional mistakes; changing an earlier position on something; having a slip of the tongue; and straying too far out of their own lane…or—and this is most common with the reality show-molded celebs for sure—revealing they had less actual talent than we first believed.

Obama is currently caught in that tearing down phase, whether he recognizes it or not. He has gone from being the underdog to the establishment, fairly or not, and is daily absorbing the rhetoric of both the left and the right. The press likes him more than they did Bill Clinton at this point in the first year, but the media love fest of all things Obama is starting to grow stale as well. This is but the first crucial season in his presidency where we shall see if those great talents can fuel the political savvy to achieve tangible results on key issues, results that a majority of Americans find acceptable.

And such political savvy cannot be underestimated. For all of his assets, the key gap that Obama brought into the White House was the lack of executive experience. Having never served as a governor or even a mayor of a city. Obama does not have the battle-hardened skills of a big picture leader who had to contend with various factions and find ways to unify them enough to haggle key compromises that moved issues forward. Clinton was a dogged survivor across eight years in Washington because of his long executive journey in Arkansas coupled with strategically building relationships with Beltway insiders long before running for president. By contrast, Obama’s two full-time years in the Senate, before spending the next two almost exclusively on the campaign trail, was scarcely enough time to forge deep bonds with Democrats and Republicans alike, Blue Dogs and evangelicals and all the other subcategories, in order to truly be able to count on their sustainable partnership. Combine this with the public’s short experience with Obama and its proclivity to destroy celebrities as quickly as it creates them, and you have the state of our first Celebrity-in-Chief as he moves toward autumn after a blistering summer.

If there’s a key takeaway here that I want to emphasize, it’s the need for Americans to demonstrate more responsibility in embracing day-to-day opportunities to be leaders themselves—in their families; in neighborhoods; in business; with civic and religious groups; at city hall and the county commission chambers. Too often the average American abdicates his or her citizenry to the “official” leader—and even more so when that leader has been clothed in the cult of celebrity. We create celebrities to vicariously represent our own deepest longings, and rip them to shreds when we focus on their faults to the neglect of our own deepest shortcomings.

I would almost see Obama as a victim placed upon this pedestal by a fickle electorate only to be gradually pushed off, were it not for the fact that he sought out the highest office in the land so quickly into his federal tenure. We must be careful what we wish for. I wonder if Obama’s gifts could be more impactful in a different arena, such as heading a powerful non-profit or being a macro-organizer for numerous communities across the country. Washington-based politics is so mired in partisanship, special interests and the specter of re-election, that even the most gifted and well-intentioned person will fall far short of their aspirations. It is a broken, rotted system, and has left me with little faith in either major political party.

But I still believe that real people can make a difference—Obama included, I hope. But, even more importantly, you and I and those around us at this very moment represent true change we can believe in. The non-celebrities, unknown to the masses but potentially famous within their own ranks for making things happen that truly and relevantly address human and community needs…these are the ones who don’t ride the rollercoaster of public adoration/disgust, but steadily hedgehog their way forward.


At 7:20 PM , Blogger Jeff said...

Bi-Partisan thing accomplished are fine with me. I don't hope for his failure; however, his numbers have dropped drastically, and the town hall meetings are showing that people are starting to peel the onion (it's about time).

At 10:14 AM , Blogger Ed G. said...

Great post, John. The funny thing is, he's just six months into his presidency. There are a lot more ups and downs to go. If he's as smart as he has proven to be in the past, I'm guessing he'll figure out how to pull things together again--at least until the next wave of electorate fickleness.

At 10:45 AM , Anonymous Melissa said...

Did you see Godin's post on leadership yesterday?

At 12:57 PM , Blogger John Michael De Marco said...

The one where he thanks people for leading? Yep, good stuff.


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