By Marta Mossburg
Barack Obama will never be “our lord and savior,” as actor Jamie Foxx said last week. But he is godlike at making people see him as a transformational figure.
If Republicans want to win, they should study why people see President Obama as a messiah and emulate the tactics he uses that are so powerful artists paint him as Christ crucified and hope embodied.
Ultimately, it comes down to branding, which Republicans are about as good at as unsuccessful Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin is at explaining “legitimate rape.” In fact, a computer program created by a child could be designing most Republican advertisements and campaign material, given that their motif for the past 50 years has been the same: flags and eagles combined with a candidate’s name.
Other conservative-libertarian symbols probably alienate more people than they attract. The Gadsden flag, for example, depicts a coiled, hissing rattlesnake underscored by “Don’t tread on me.” It may have been a perfect symbol for American revolutionaries and embody the tea party’s distrust of government. But times have changed — a lot. For starters, America is a lot more urban, and pop culture is paramount. Young people are mostly ignorant of American history, see the Constitution as a “living” document and are not moved by symbols of our past. In fact, they likely see them as relics of a slaveholding, oppressive society.
Art critic Jed Perl wrote in the Dec. 6 issue of The New Republic that the popularity of Andy Warhol, whose advertising-inspired loud prints of celebrities and consumables that fetch multimillions at auction, reveals the new America. “Warholism is the dominant ism of our day, grounded as it is in the assumption that popular culture trumps all other culture, and that all culture must become popular culture in order to succeed,” he wrote.
Many people hate pop culture and love America’s historic symbols, reminiscent though they may be of a flawed past. But we live in today’s world, not one where the Founding Fathers still walk the earth. It requires meeting people where they are — not changing principles, just approach.
Obama gets this. Why do you think he all but only visited comedy and talk shows the closing months of his campaign? He knew that winning the pop culture meant winning it all.
Likewise, and more importantly, the iconography created by his campaign resonates with the prevailing culture. The “O” with the bright sun and flowing fields conjures images of a brighter tomorrow with Obama at the center of it — the sun, or the son as Jamie Foxx and others have labeled him. The “O” obviously stands for Obama, but it works outside of his name as an emblem for America. The Democratic National Committee, in fact, keeps using the symbol instead of the presidential seal. Commentator Bill Whittle says of the ubiquitous O: “What they are branding is in fact an ideology, centered around a cult of personality.”
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s brand — red and blue wavy lines in the shape of an “R,” by comparison — is like a bad copycat. The flow of the lines makes it feel somewhat modern, and it summons the U.S. flag. But the “R” in his case speaks mainly to the candidate without invoking a better, or any, vision of America.
Politics do not offer salvation for anyone, conservative or liberal alike. And adopting successful tactics does not mean shelving a belief in a limited government.
But icons are powerful tools that shape a candidate or a movement’s image in the public. Given the success of Obama’s image machine, conservatives need to understand branding is at least as central to their cause as the ideas animating it. When or if that happens, progressives will not know what hit them, because freedom and prosperity are so much more appealing than a government forcing each person to pay his or her fair share.
Marta H. Mossburg writes about national affairs and politics in Maryland, where she lives. Read her at www.martamossburg.com.