A View From the Cheap Seats

March 16, 2010

“O” My


By Rich Trzupek

You know what you don’t see around so much anymore? The Seal of the President of the United States. Oh, we’re not quite ready to put the Great Seal on the endangered species list or anything, at least not yet, but it’s use has been somewhat diminished over the past thirteen months.

Use of the Seal dates back to the 1850s and the Millard Fillmore administration, with the current design (absent a few later modifications) having been adopted during the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes in the 1870s. It has been a symbol of the power of the Chief Executive and the democratic foundations of the office for decades. Presidents come and go, but the Seal endures as an emblem of the highest elected office in the land.

Then, soon after Barack Obama took office, a very odd, most unprecedented event took place. The White House began substituting the Seal with another, powerful symbol: the ubiquitous red, white and blue stylized “O” that was the trademark of the Obama campaign.

“Branding” is the term of art and Obama’s strategists did a first-rate job of branding their candidate in 2008. The O was everywhere, a new, hip symbol of a new, hip candidate – a bright sun rising on a stylized field of red and white rows that replaced “amber waves of grain.”

Every candidate tries to create a powerful symbol during a campaign. George W. Bush’s “W” was an easy way to distinguish father from son, for example, in order to establish George W. Bush as his own man, rather than a prince in a political dynasty.

But, once the campaign is over and the electorate has made their decision known, those brand symbols are normally tucked away in a closet until the next election cycle. Not so with Barack Obama. The O is as omni-present as ever, sometimes in official government web-sites and literature. It has been said that the Obama administration has been in perpetual campaign mode since the president took the oath of office. The way that the O has stuck around suggests this is so.

Were it only that, the fact that the O is still overwhelming might merely be a source of amusement, but there’s more going on here. This administration, more than any other that your humble correspondent can think of, is based on a cult of personality.

Before he ever set foot inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Barack Obama was acclaimed as the best, smartest, smoothest, most empathetic president in the history of the Republic. He was going to transform not merely the United States of America, but the world. How? Nobody spent a lot of time sweating the details. The details didn’t matter. Obama assured his followers that it would be so, and they had no doubts. Barack Obama would be the president who transcended petty politics, greedy capitalism and American self-interest. They knew it would happen, because he said it would.

Over a year later, the best that one can say is that nothing much has changed. The worst one can say, on the other hand, is that things have gotten worse. The latter assessment arises, for different reasons, from both the right and the left. Conservatives and many in the middle lambast Obama for out of control spending, trying to appease rogue states like Iran and increasing the power and reach of big government. Many liberals are fed up with the president because of all the unfulfilled promises he made. American troops are still in Iraq and Afghanistan, cap and trade languishes in the Senate and government-run health care (the so-called public option) is dead.

All we are left with is the O, which is looking more and more hollow with each passing day. In the absence of achievement, would-be leaders turn to entitlement and that, I’ll submit, is why the O is still around.

It’s a common tactic employed by dictators. And no, I’m not suggesting that Barack Obama has aspirations of dictatorship, but rather observing that when you try to lead solely through the cult of personality, than the symbols of that cult become disproportionately important to the leader in question, whether said leader is elected to office or seizes power. When you can’t point to substantive accomplishment, the natural fallback position is to resurrect those feelings to trust – and dare we say: “hope” – that put you in power to begin with.

It’s also a dangerous tactic for Barack Obama and his party. The O still elicits positive feelings among his supporters, but support is fading. There has been a dramatic shift in the way key groups view this president, particularly among young people who have been deserting the Dems in ever-increasing numbers. In a year’s time, maybe less, the famous O may go from being a symbol of hope and change to being a target of scorn and ridicule.

If that is the way it goes, perhaps.the Presidential Seal may not seem so bad after all.


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