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The Obama Momentum: Smarts, Style Create a New Kind of Power

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.

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Steven Stipelmans rendering of the Obama style
Glamour. Arthur Miller called it “that trans-human aura or power to attract imitation…a kind of vessel into which dreams are poured…the power to rearrange people’s emotions, which in effect, is the power to control one’s environment.”

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.”
Observations including comparisons between Barack Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Surely, the widespread embrace of Obama — 83 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the transition, according to a Gallup poll — is in part reaction to George W. Bush’s stunning unpopularity. But back when, the tongue-tied, regular-guy persona now widely perceived as a national embarrassment played quite differently. After a few too many rude Al Gore eye rolls during their first presidential debate, Bush’s hyper-folksiness had a certain charm. Many Americans didn’t appreciate watching the guy they’d like to have a beer with getting pooh-poohed by the smartest boy in the class. Eight years later, the drinking-buddy presidency having not worked out so well, Obama’s perceived sophistication and professorial demeanor bring communal relief. “There’s definitely a great sense of comfort in knowing that the President-elect is able to speak in a way that lifts your spirits,” says Goodwin, a condition she maintains goes beyond the gulf between Obama’s and Bush’s oratorical skills. “One of the big resources of the presidency, the ability to communicate, will be used well by this President, especially in contrast to the previous time, [and] not just the malapropisms of Bush. There was a real failure during the administration to take the American people into confidence in terms of explaining why we were going into Iraq in a way that made people understand; why we didn’t stay in Afghanistan; what happened in this economic crisis. Franklin Roosevelt always said that the American people will take anything on the chin as long as you explain it to them.”

FDR is one part of a most impressive presidential triumvirate with whom countless Obama comparisons have been drawn, some by Goodwin, who also wrote “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.” In his case, the economic times, as well as the two men’s superior communication skills, advance the parallels. Then there are the comparisons to JFK (who doesn’t cotton to youth, vitality, a young, gorgeous family?) and the biggest kahuna of all, Lincoln himself.

Wendy Schiller, a professor of political science and public policy at Brown, likens the Obama aura to that of Kennedy. She cites three presidential types: the Ronald Reagan model, garnering trust and admiration in a grandfatherly way, but difficult to relate to personally; the Bush 43/Bill Clinton type, “with weaknesses that make them very human,” and the third, into which Obama and Kennedy fall. “There’s not this, ‘You eat McDonald’s, so I identify with you,’” she explains. “Rather, it’s ‘You’re the epitome of everything that I want to be. You’re smart. You’re charismatic. You’re capable of leadership, and I want to follow you anywhere you go.’ It’s what we call the charismatic presidency.…It’s star power, essentially, and it has major implications for how successful a president is in leading the country.”

Though it cannot be acquired, like any innate gift, mathematical genius, a songbird’s voice, a terrific way with tap shoes, star power can be cultivated and channeled deftly. Indications, whether Saturday’s all-aboard Amtrak Lincoln-esque arrival in D.C. or Michelle Obama’s latter-day penchant for Sixties-ish shifts, indicate that both the President-elect and his wife are plenty skilled at doing so. And if they’re sometimes less than discreet about it — yes, we can round up every entertainment luminary imaginable for an HBO-only concert — their enchanted electorate is too agog to notice.

Yet star power is a means to more than getting elected. It has aided Obama in reaching across the aisle while invoking Ronald Reagan with a straight face; it may even make it possible for him to delay his rollback of the Bush tax cuts, a major campaign promise.
Barack Obama speaks at the We Are One concert

Barack Obama speaks at the "We Are One" concert.

Photo By Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images


In reference to less pressing matters, an aura of glamour can force discussion, direct attention and persuade via the star’s example and his admirers’ aspirations. Despite the plethora of domestic and international crises facing Obama, the possibilities for his presidency to impact a broader range of social matters are huge. This reporter has heard people express beliefs that Obama and his family will have a positive influence on everything from parenting to the wardrobe choices of tarty 20-somethings to schlock TV. Outlandish? Maybe not. “It’s about smarts. It’s about being urbane,” says Michael Kors. “What [the Obamas] represent is that you can be smart, you can be sophisticated, you can be well-read, you can be accomplished and you can be attractive at the same time.”

In that department, Letitia Baldrige, who was social secretary and chief of staff to Jackie Kennedy, had been there and done that. “When they’re scenic-looking, the public warms up to them faster,” she says.

While not even the most dashing president can impose nationwide urbanity by executive order, he can lead by example. Clinton radiated intellect, but not polish; George W. made folksiness cartoonish, and White House life under each reflected those realities. Yet the president is in a unique position to influence American culture not only by the programs he proposes, but by the way he and his family conduct their lives, or at the least the public portion of them, in the White House. “The mission of the presidency is also to inspire the public with good taste and good actions, kind hearts, good living,” says Baldrige. Case in point: Even at a time when funding for the arts is far down the priority list, presidential interest could affect public perception, as during the Kennedy years, when Jackie made it her mission to celebrate openly, in part by opening the White House to a wide range of artists and performers.

“Obama is really gung-ho about the arts and arts in education,” notes André Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater. “He had a platform about the arts when he started running for President. No one else ever has, to my knowledge. There is a big arts committee going down to Washington for the Inauguration, and I suspect that the Obamas will probably invite many more artists to the White House.” Bishop notes that Obama’s stimulus package allots $50 million for nonprofit arts organizations, with specific guidelines as to usage. “Now, $50 million out of however many billions is very small, but on the other hand, [it says] that somebody, and I don’t know who, values the arts.”

In addition to pushing for funding when appropriate and welcoming American and foreign artists into the White House, Bishop notes another way a president can focus on the arts: by consuming them. He can “go to museums and plays and concerts with his family,” an essential point because the population tends to follows the president’s lead, particularly if he’s popular. At the same time, the president and the national mood he helps foster impact the kind of art produced. Recently, Bishop notes, a public yen for feel-good nostalgia has determined much of the kind of theater produced, but he anticipates a change, “because you have an administration who clearly is looking forward. That can’t help but impact all the sorts of music being composed, the sorts of plays being written, the sorts of novels being written and published.”

And, according to Harvey Weinstein, the types of upcoming films and television shows. Though escapism in entertainment is always big during bad economic times, Weinstein foresees a push toward more challenging fare. “Obama has the magic wand to bring us all together under one roof and talk about what entertainment can do culturally and productively for the country,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be great if our kids grew up watching ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ instead of a tale of two bridezillas?”
The First Family celebrating election night

The First Family celebrating election night.

Photo By EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Sasha and Malia Obama at the We Are One concert

Sasha and Malia Obama at the "We Are One" concert.

Photo By REUTERS/Jim Young/Landov


Ah, the youth factor. Barack Obama did something that not even the randy, sax-playing, MTV-loving Clinton could achieve: He brought out the youth vote in droves, not to mention unprecedented numbers of volunteers, while capturing the attention as well of the under-18 set, so much so that the proverbial “rock star” status hardly applies. As far as millions of kids are concerned, Obama is a deity, and educators, especially those working with urban, minority populations, are adopting a simple credo: Carpe diem.

Father Christopher Devron, SJ, is president of Christ the King Jesuit College Prep School in Chicago, part of the Cristo Rey network of schools built upon a work-study model within which students earn tuition money by working five days a month. The school opened in September with 104 freshmen, 102 of whom are African-American (only eight are Catholic). Not surprisingly, the election process was integrated into the fall curriculum. “Every day, our students are going to see President Obama, an African-American president, in a shirt and tie,” Devron says, noting that the wardrobe is particularly symbolic for Christ the King students, who adhere to a professional dress code appropriate for the offices in which they work. “It’s a subtle teaching method — less explaining, more showing,” which highlights the relevance of the school/work day. As for whether the presidential example would resonate as well if Obama were 20 years older with a pot belly and a frumpy wife, Devron thinks probably not. “Of course our students respond to the charisma and to the style of Barack Obama,” he says. “He speaks to their generation — his desire to keep his BlackBerry. Inner-city kids are very tied to information and information technology. It’s a generational thing, and our kids are going to tap into it.”

Though hardly impressionable adolescents, many fashion luminaries act plenty love struck when it comes to the President-elect and Michelle Obama. But then, they hail from a world more prone to hyperbolic indulgence than most multibillion-dollar industries. Had Obama lost the election, “I would be ready to cut my wrists, because everything that’s going on would be so depressing,” says Diane von Furstenberg. “Oh my God,” offers Isaac Mizrahi, “is there anything more glamorous than Michelle and Barack Obama? There’s nobody more glamorous than them. Totally, no.” And from Donna Karan: “When I look at them and I hear them and I see them, and their sense of style and grace and humbleness and clarity and strength, I think they really are iconic. I think people search their whole life to become what they emanate.”

Once they’ve gotten a grip, major designers and fashion execs share the concerns and hopes of the general population regarding the economy and the wars, while copping to surface attraction. “There’s a sophistication level there, an education, a background and style, that I think all of us think of as glamorous,” notes major Hillary Clinton-ite Robert Duffy, president of Marc Jacobs. “When you’re inspired by someone’s speech and there seems to be some validity to it, that’s glamorous.”

For the most part a worldly lot, fashion folk also understand and delight in the instant upgrade of the United States’ global image afforded by Obama’s election. “It’s like waiting for the savior of the world,” says Carolina Herrera. “[Especially in] Latin America, which has been a little bit abandoned, everyone is waiting for this man. It seems that he’s very determined to do good things, to make this country loved around the world again. You used to go to Europe and you’d say, ‘the United States,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, my God, what a disaster.’”

Expressing the view from afar, Karl Lagerfeld writes in a fax that the Obamas are “better than glamorous,” and have already accomplished some profitable p.r.: “Mr. Bush was never liked in Europe. Mr. Obama was loved in Europe when he did his big tour even before he was president.” Musing as only he would, Lagerfeld adds that had the election been open to Europeans, Obama “would have gotten SO! much more.”

Stella McCartney concurs. “Obviously, being half American and having a lot of family there, I’m more interested than most people I guess,” she says. Still, she observes that overall European interest throughout Obama’s rise was and remains acute. Obama has buoyed the U.S. image “absolutely,” McCartney says, “beyond a shadow of a doubt. More so, I think, than anyone living in the States will ever know.”

Obama’s international appeal is clearly a combination of ideology and style, inclusive of the fact that the man holds and uses a passport. But having left these shores is hardly the sole testament to his modernity. In one of fashion’s favorite motifs — ye olde “It’s not an age, it’s an attitude” — two of our quite different elder statesman note that, hey, in running his campaign, Obama went where no man has gone before: the 21st century.

That he was a candidate virtually “without a résumé,” doesn’t matter, notes Nicole Miller president and chief executive officer Bud Konheim. “The phenomenon is, we have a whole generation of people that are not turned on by anything, it’s woe in the economy, whatever. He gets on the Internet and raises $150 million in September when supposedly nobody has any money,” Konheim explains with typical relish. “Let’s look at the donut. The donut is that there are people that are able to be motivated, because you give them a reason to be motivated, and Obama did that.…His thing was hope, change, optimism and he sold it.”

Oscar de la Renta is on the same page. “You’re talking about a man who ran a brilliant campaign,” says de la Renta, like Duffy and Weinstein, a longtime Hillary Clinton supporter. “He didn’t make a single mistake, and he did this with a tremendous amount of grace.

“Governments, not only in the United States, but governments all over the world, are run like we are in the 19th century,” de la Renta continues. “This is the first man who has used modern technology to reach people. There has never been the mass of young people believing in a man as for Obama. Why? Because he reached them through the media that they all understand, through new technologies, through the Internet.”

Nor can we discount the pretty wallop packed by the young-family imagery, and not only among the multitasking mom-and-dad demographic. “They have such a beautiful family, they have young children,” says Rodarte’s Laura Mulleavy, who is in her mid-20s. “That brings forth a different level when people think about who their president is and the family who is coming into office now. It’s different for my generation, anyways.…I think it’s already a more hopeful image that you have in your mind.”

And with the little ones ages 10 and seven, whatever limited press there is likely to be all good. “They have to hit the age of 14 or 15, when they’re dating, to be a possible negative factor,” notes Baldrige.

So might all of this walking on water backfire? Not anytime soon, maintains Schiller, since “nobody is willing to burst the Barack Obama balloon,” a few early signs of discord notwithstanding. “If he maintains the same demeanor and the same cool composure” — style meeting substance — “then people believe he has a handle on things. If Congress gets in his way or the Republican party gets in his way or the Supreme Court gets in his way, voters will blame them. They’re not remotely willing to blame Barack Obama for anything in the near future.” And that, she argues, is not necessarily a good thing: “You don’t ever want a circumstance where the president says I want A, B and C, and everyone says OK. It’s not the way our government is supposed to work.”

Goodwin, however, sees things differently. “The expectations are both a danger and a great possibility,” she says. “Right now, they give Barack Obama the chance to do something quite extraordinary, with the country behind him.”