Thursday, December 31, 2009

Barack the Diffident

Image matters. Images that symbolize a presidency are often called iconic.

In prior posts I joined those who suggested that Obama's bows to the King of Saudi Arabia and the Emperor of Japan were iconic expressions of a deferential foreign policy.

A skilled propagandist like Michael Moore knows well the power of iconic images. When Moore was working to undermine the Bush administration he suggested that the image of Bush reading to children during the 9/11 attack should be an iconic image of the Bush terrorism policy.

It did not work. For a very simple reason. It was overwhelmed by the power of the image of George Bush standing in the rubble of the World Trade Center, his arm around a firefighter, announcing that the terrorists would soon hear from us.

That image held through the 2004 election. It defined Bush and his administration until Hurricane Katrina. Then it was drowned out by the image of Bush saying: "Heck of a job, Brownie."

That iconic image defined the last years of the Bush administration. Whenever a catastrophe happened, the public reaction was that Bush was detached and oblivious, that he had abandoned the nation to its fate.

It may not have been fair; it may not have been historically accurate; but it was surely the lens through which the public judged the last years of the Bush administration.

Now, Maureen Dowd, apparently suffering from buyer's remorse, has set out to identify the iconic image that is defining the Obama administration. Echoing George Bush's glib remark, she performs a deft ironic twist and offers her own judgment of Obama's response to the Christmas terror attack as: "Heck of a job, Barry." Link here.

Dowd began her column beautifully. Walking past the White House, she had an epiphany: no one is home. Meaning: no one is in charge. Absent presidential leadership, we are more vulnerable than before.

Bush was present at ground zero after the 9/11 attack. On Christmas day Obama was in Hawaii enjoying the sun and surf and golf. Obama was not going to let a small thing like the failure of our counter-terrorism policy interrupt his sun-filled vacation.

His first reaction was perfectly diffident. He seemed to be taking a few moments from his golf game to read a prepackaged statement. Emotionless and tieless Obama lapsed into dead-letter legalese, leaving everyone confused and in doubt.

Where Bush was resolute; Obama was legalistic. Where Bush was present; Obama was barely there. Where Bush was courageous; Obama was pusillanimous. Where Bush took command of the situation, Obama blamed his predecessor.

As a ploy, it did not work.

After measuring the universal public combination, Obama decided to restate his position. Only this time he phoned it in. As Dowd shrewdly notes, when Obama stepped forth to denounce the systemic failure of the government, not only did he not seem to recognize that he was the head of this government, but he did not even show his face.

As Dowd says, there was no video feed. For her it was a Spock moment: "In his detached way, Spock was letting us know that our besieged starship was not speeding into a safe new future, and that we still have to be scared."

What are we to make of the absence of a video feed? Does it mean that the administration does not want to risk producing an iconic image of diffidence.

An iconic image must be an image. Perhaps the Obama image-controllers outsmarted Maureen Dowd, leaving her and the rest of us still hungry for the right image to symbolize the Obama presidency.

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