Thursday, September 2, 2010

In the art of presidential image-making, Obama offers imperialism, like Mussolini, and juvenile petulance

Obama's permanent image as president appears to be shaking down to two possibilities. The first, embodied in his characteristic posture when addressing the public, might be called "American Duce." Head thrown back, chin jutting, a frown cutting his features, Obama presents himself as less a man than an archetype of human power. Obama uses this during speeches, debates, and public events.

It's even evident in the classic Hope and Change posters. It is an imperial expression, designed to overawe and impress, the expression of an Augustus contemplating his empire. Mussolini adapted it as the proper public image of the ruler of Nuova Roma. To my knowledge, no other major leader since has utilized anything similar. (Mussolini's other trick, limited to private audiences, was "the stare," in which he would gaze penetratingly and unblinkingly while advancing on visitors, pausing to examine them for several seconds before moving on. Claudio Spadaro, who portrayed Mussolini in Franco Zefferelli's film Tea with Mussolini, had this down to...well, to a "T." If Obama starts pulling anything like this, we'll really have something to worry about.)

The other is what might be called the "schoolmarm" look. It is an expression of simple petulance and impatience, best characterized by the term "fuming." A fixed glare, lips twisted in a near-pout, arms often crossed. One almost expects to hear the tapping of a foot. It's a posture not often seen in presidents, more commonly encountered among stubborn juveniles and novice schoolteachers. We have been seeing this quite often lately since things began to seriously go south for the administration.

At this point, not yet halfway through his presidency, it's impossible to say which image will settle upon Barack Obama. I myself have no particular preference. The Duce look has appeared in quite a few magazine and newspaper illustrations in recent months. I imagine that one has to be taken as better, if only marginally, than the other.

Our image seldom matches what we want, or what we may believe ourselves to be. Character always comes out. Obama is in the process of learning this. FDR was a flippant, engaging figure. Reagan was a man of endless good cheer (recall his joking with the surgeons after he was shot). Bush remains a man of superb calm and detachment. The real Obama will inevitably emerge. I doubt it will be a surprise to anybody.

No comments: