Branding Obama (the politics of teasing)

Obama Maureen Dowd thinks there’s a problem in the Obama campaign. 

She wonders whether Obama might be "trying so hard to be perfect that it’s stultifying."  What, she asks, if Obama seems:

so tightly wrapped, overcalculated and circumspect that he can’t even allow anyone to make jokes about him, and that his supporters […] so evangelical and eager for a champion to rescue America that their response to any razzing is a sanctimonious: Don’t mess with our messiah!

Dowd’s concern has appeared elsewhere.  Bill Carter of the NYT complains there’s nothing "buffoonish" about Obama and James Rainey of the LAT remarks on his campaign’s "irony deficiency." 

All presidents are people.  All people are flawed.  All president’s are flawed.  Clinton was a womanizer.  Bush a challenged communicator. Gore a bit robotic.  We know our leaders by their faults, errors and inadequacies. 

But there is more at work here than a sophomore’s syllogism.  Flaws turn out to be an essential qualities in the democratic process.  And where flaws do not exist they are made to exist.  We might argue that that’s what late night TV is for.  Letterman, Leno, Kimmel, O’Brien, that’s their job: to point out flaws, and to insist on them where they do not exist.

From an anthropological point of view, teasing is a political act. It’s part of the cultural construction on which democracy turns.  Otherwise presidents are too grand, their powers too great, their status too asymmetrical.  We scorn our politicians to level them. We tease to keep democracies democratic. 

Teasing must allowed into the the Obama campaign or there can’t be any realistic hope of the White House.  This will be a test of the Obama team.  How good are they at  meaning management?  Is there room for even this in brand Obama?


Dowd, Maureen.  2008.  May We Mock, Barack?  New York Times.  July 16, 2008.  here

3 thoughts on “Branding Obama (the politics of teasing)

  1. nh

    perhaps, and this is a big perhaps…the Obama camp is not fighting to get in the White house, but fighting to get in History Books. Heroes have flawes…Legends don’t. My guess is he is aiming for bigger game than McCain.. He is aiming for Washington, Rooseveld, etc.

  2. Alan

    I have three observations about political teasing.

    First, this appears a rather tangential post to the political satire news of the week, namely the New Yorker Magazine cover. (I would like to hear some analysis of that.)

    Re: That New Yorker cover. Satire doesn’t usually require the kind of laborious explanation given by the New Yorker. Political satire connects and people “get it.” What is interesting to me about the New Yorker satire of Obama is not the reaction of the Obama campaign and his supporters. Rather it is the mis-step of the magazine and the satirical cartoonist.

    The cartoon lacks a frame of reference that would make the satirist’s target clear? If the target is the “whacko right” then the cartoonist might have given us Vice President Cheney drawing the cartoon or directing a cartoonist’s hand to add one more damning detail.

    But this cartoon has no frame of reference. Obama could be the target. Everything about the cartoon implies that Barack and Michelle (given the look of Angela Davis from the 60’s!) are slyly putting one over on the rest of us. The hand bump and the look over the shoulder all portray a confidence man’s sleight of hand.

    All of this is a problem if the real target of the satire is the political right wing. There is simply no way to tell.

    And this says more about the state of political satire in America than anything else. We actually aren’t very good at political satire, culturally speaking. And we never have been. Americans boo and jeer their political heroes who must have one eye on the peanut gallery at all times lest they be booed off the field. America is not sophisticated enough, frankly, to be the home of the satirist.

    As for the cartoonist, he needs to look at the history of political cartooning if he wants to get it right the next time. Ever since Daumier drew Louis-Phillipe in 1831 as a rotting pear or since Thomas Nast gave us the Gilded Age money bag man or Pat Oliphant gave us the elder Bush carrying a handbag (now there is a rich vein), political cartoonists have been direct and plugged into popular sentiments and attitudes.

    But the New Yorker? It just shows itself to be as inept at political satire as you would expect an effete, self-anointed, out-of-touch critic to be.

    Second, if you want to see and hear political satire that works, go see the latest animated musical extravaganza at Jib Jab. They get Obama exactly right, as they get Bush, Cheney, the Clintons and McCain, and most of all the American voter! Jib Jab laughs at the candidates, the system and the dupes who make it work every four years! And we laugh with them. It is here

    Finally (and now to the point of Professor McCracken’s post), Grant writes:

    “From an anthropological point of view, teasing is a political act. It’s part of the cultural construction on which democracy turns. Otherwise presidents are too grand, their powers too great, their status too asymmetrical. We scorn our politicians to level them. We tease to keep democracies democratic.”

    Well, look at the American president we have and the presidency as an institution we have accepted since 911. The power of the presidency has grown to be asymmetrical.

    All the office needs now is an “Augustan” figure, like the first emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus, “a gift from the gods,” who completed the transformation of the ancient Roman state from Republic to Autocracy.

    Augustus could not be made fun of. (Ask Ovid.) Nor could he be disagreed with. Nor could you appear to claim a higher status. If you did you were exiled, or worse.

    Culturally and politically speaking, America has arrived at the very same treacherous turning point. Well, maybe.

  3. Randy MacDonald

    A list of late night that doesn’t include Stewart nor Colbert? Nobody’s perfect, I guess.

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