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At noon today, when Barack Obama takes the oath of office as the 44th President of the United States, he assumes the mantle of Leader of the Free World, a double-sided distinction coined (sort of) by John F. Kennedy during the nascent days of the Cold War. But in this particular presidential ascent, “free” is but an option, as one could easily substitute another adjective to suit his or her particular fascination with this most intriguing man. In the United States, Obama is perceived variously as the leader of the informed world, the worldly world, the articulate world, the Internet-savvy world, the self-starter world, the upwardly mobile world, the two-parent home world, the one-parent home world, the no-excuses world, the yes-we-can world. Around the globe, Bush-weary allies consider him the guy to right the ship of a long-wayward friend. Put it all together, and that, by Miller’s definition, is one major trans-human aura, political glamour personified. (President and Mme. Sarkozy, take a step or two off to the right, if you will.)
Perhaps never before in American history have more hope, excitement and expectation been invested in, or more lofty qualities projected onto, an incoming president. Barack Obama is the perfect package of promise: a platform of change and a battle cry of, “Yes, we can” swathed in great looks, an interracial identity and an erudite, debonair demeanor so captivating it would seem too perfect were it portrayed on celluloid. He takes to the podium, all impeccable posture and confident-not-cocky smile, and you feel comforted; when he opens his mouth to speak — well, he has you at “my fellow Americans.”
For better or worse, style has always impacted the presidency, never more so than now, an age of instant, 24/7 media coverage. Each gesture, each inflection, each lean Hartmarx suit impart meaning. So, too, do kudos paid a former rival and talk of ideological cross-pollination, especially when realized in the makeup of the early administration.
“What style means to the country is a window onto the personality of the president and his wife,” says Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose biography of Abraham Lincoln, “Team of Rivals,” has famously inspired the President-elect. “The way that [presidents] conduct themselves really does attract fascination, and it often reflects the mood in the country.”