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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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?”
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