Che Obama: the new cult of personality

Why does no one else find it creepy that Obama’s image now adorns everything from t-shirts to hats to train tickets?

Helen Searls

Topics USA

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Standing on the National Mall in the cold, waiting for the inauguration ceremony to begin, it was hard to escape the feeling that something very new was afoot. Not only were we all about to witness a slice of history – the swearing in of the nation’s first black president. We were also about to witness the inauguration of the first truly iconic superstar into the office of US president.

It is hard to convey the scale on which Obama the icon has gripped the country and its capital in particular. The new president is not merely popular, nor is he even just a superstar politician. President Obama has become something else in the eyes of the nation and perhaps even the world. He is now an icon. And like all true icons, the man’s image is everywhere.

Shepard Fairey’s Obama image.

The Obama cult started fairly modestly with the usual campaign buttons, yard signs and bumper stickers. But from early on, this was more than a traditional display of political support. The Obama image became a central feature of his own political campaign. The slogan ‘Yes we can’ and a pop art image of Obama captured more of a mood than an old-fashioned political campaign could. Gradually the now famous pop art image, created by a Los Angeles graffiti artist, Shepard Fairey, started to appear on t-shirts and on posters. It is doubtful that anyone ever thought to wear a t-shirt with George Bush’s image splashed across it, except to deride him. Now, wearing the image of the president is not only popular, it has become almost obligatory in some circles.

Obama’s image is not just appearing on t-shirts. There are Obama hats, Obama pencil cases, Obama hoodies, Obama screen savers, Obama jewellery, Obama coffee cups and Obama street murals. And Obamamania has gone mainstream. Today in DC we can buy metro tickets sporting Obama’s image. Numerous buildings are decorated with huge banners welcoming the new president. Even the National Portrait Galley has got in on the act, snapping up Shepard Fairey’s original collage for the gallery walls long before the new president’s official portrait will be commissioned.

An Obama t-shirt.

Such is the strength of the cult surrounding Obama’s image that vendors at the inauguration were hard pushed to find new ways to commemorate the day. Many tried, of course. On my own walk into the city I saw Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street, a local landmark, displaying a huge red, white and blue ice sculpture of the letters OBAMA. A church on 16th Street offered hot cocoa and a chance to be photographed with a life-sized Obama cut-out. On the Mall itself everything from Obama special inauguration bandanas to Obama dollar bills (with President Lincoln’s image replaced with President Obama’s) to my own personal favourite, Obama water, was on offer.

The pervasive nature of President Obama’s image is something new and quite different in American presidential politics. When President George W Bush came to office you could maybe get a mug, a commemorative coin or a button, but even his most ardent supporters did not adorn themselves with his image. True, some did sport Stetsons, but that was about the extent of the personality cult around the previous occupant of the White House.

In contrast, today our new president’s image is everywhere and yet no one seems to find this strange or creepy. During the Cold War, American politicians used to vilify communist countries for the cult of personality that surrounded their leaders. But Maoist China and Stalin’s Russia have nothing on Obama’s America when it comes to the cult now surrounding the new US president.

A New York Obama mural.

It could be argued that one explanation for Obamamania is simply that people want to take with them a little bit of history. Coming just 40 years after Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech on the same mall, many elderly Americans shed tears of joy, disbelief and triumph as the first black president took the presidential oath. This was a moving occasion and it is not surprising that many want a memento or a souvenir of the moment that most thought could never happen.

But the cult around Obama the person goes way beyond souvenir hunting. Normally if you buy a souvenir you put it on a shelf somewhere and move on. This is something different. The image of Obama is not merely something to collect. It is something to wear and show off. It marks or labels those who wear it and as such it is a symbol, not just an image. Moreover, as a symbol it means something different than President Obama the real-life politician.

President Obama the politician has political goals and aspirations just like other politicians. In contrast, the Iconic Obama is not tied to or associated with any real or specific goals. To imagine that all the people wearing the t-shirts and putting up Obama posters are fervent supporters of Obama’s programme or policies misses the point of what has happened here.

An Obama earring.

That face now represents a sense of hope and faith about the future. It is a hope that many share and want to identify with. And when businesses or individuals display Obama’s image they are expressing their faith and identification with such a sentiment. It is not hope for a very specific goal, but that does not diminish its appeal. People want to be part of the Obama nation. It is a nation built on sentiment – more akin to the Red Sox Nation than any real political entity.

Or maybe a better analogy is the poster child of the sixties, Che Guevara, whose simple image was again just a face decoupled from a political message, used to decorate the bedrooms of the youth of America and Europe. Few who owned the poster knew very much about Che Guevara the politician, but having it on your wall signalled that you were somehow progressive and radical. Today, though, progress and radicalism have been replaced by hope and faith. And it is not simply teenagers who want to identify with this message.

Helen Searls is executive producer at Feature Story News in Washington, DC.

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Topics USA


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