A Pop Icon Takes Office

If it wasn’t shiningly clear before, being in the midst of the streets of Washington DC on Inauguration Day firmly established one thing: Barack Obama has become a cult personality and, as a consequence, the world’s hottest commercial brand.

The nearly two-million-people following thronged the inauguration, each spectator defying the unendurable cold, and massive chaos in order to be able to utter three magic words: “I Was There!” Each one sincerely hoping that the substance of those words will become only more awe-inspiring in four or eight years.

Before even taking office, Obama is a worshipped symbol in the same league as Che Guevara, Martin Luther King, or John F. Kennedy. Among thousands of ingenious paintings of Obama, Shepard Fairey’s already iconic red-blue portrait of Obama, echoing Andy Warhol’s mass production art, has come to incarnate the transformation of the president from politician to pop icon. In the streets around The Mall on Tuesday, you could buy t-shirts, dolls, badges, and even condoms (!) bearing Obama’s name, while protest groups against Jesus, for Jesus, against homosexuality, and for homosexuality fought for the passer-bys’ attention.

Everywhere, Obama’s “fans” (they do indeed seem to be much more than merely voters) could be overheard talking of him in high-pitched terms, a bit too reminiscent of sectarian rhetoric. Then again: Who can blame people for embracing hope and change, as if it came from Jesus himself, when they are in the middle of two wars and economic despair, and have just gotten rid of a president, who leaves office just as unpopular as the criminalized former president Richard Nixon did? The immense excitement is in that sense much more than a psychological observation of mass and media hysteria.

On the one hand, the profound worshipping is paradoxical. Obama has stressed time and again how his campaign was about the American people and not about himself, and, yet, he has become a mythical figure. He has pointed out the people as the true carriers of change, and they have pointed right back at him. But at the same time, people see themselves in the image of him. Obama has created a sense of solidarity, and a willingness to sacrifice, which was clearly felt in the Capital’s streets during the inaugural events. Walking in the city’s broad, car-empty highways with hordes of people on Tuesday was like being in a catastrophe movie, only with hope instead of fear leading the march.

While the freezing temperatures did prevent an unrestrained street party to break out, the genuine and persistent enthusiasm was in itself impressive. Thousands of people waited outside eight to ten hours in order to see the big parade from front row, while thousands more waited several hours to get just a three second view of the leading character through fences and spectator stands. Far more people had volunteered to help out around the city than were needed. It was all about being there, even though, for most people, that meant seeing the swearing in on a jumbotron far, far away from the main stage on Capitol.

Luckily, “No Drama Obama” is well aware that, in the long run, the intense fandom can quickly evaporate if political results do not materialize. In press conferences before his inauguration, as well as in his inaugural address, his rhetoric was relatively somber, doing his best to sound like what he is: A political, rather than a spiritual, leader. Many people will undoubtedly have a hard time taking this fact in, when this – through political compromises and less popular decisions – becomes obvious over the next four years. And the pundits will, with some delight, say that Obama isn’t all he was cracked up to be. (Jacob Ludvigsen)