Friday, November 20, 2009

Obama in China

Semi-O wakes from its slumber to post this fascinating story on Obamania in China:


Watch CBS News Videos Online

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Obama Beer


Obama Beer


After about a month hiatus, SemiO is back with a good, solid summer post.

Obama beer!

Brewed here in the Bay Area by Half Moon Bay, the Mavericks Obama Ale is only $3.75 per bottle.

We're a bit surprised that a "maverick" beer represents the president in a coat and tie on its label. Seems a more relaxed, even tipsy, Obama might be more appropriate.

Feel free to post your own suggestions for a new Obama beer label. Obama on a Clydesdale? A big beer can dropping on John McCain?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On Obama reading mainstream magazines


Another note showing that the president reads journalism as a source of information for policy decisions. One of the basic functions of journalism is to gather information, make sense of it, and present it to the reader.  Day-to-day that's what the majority of journalists do.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Friday, May 22, 2009

Obama Tours San Francisco

While President Obama was speaking to the nation about closing Guantanamo, he was also touring San Francisco via cable cars and the back of conversion vans.

He's a versatile guy, that Obama . . .

Okay, so granted, the president may actually be able to inhabit many spheres at once, but even he is subject to the laws of physics. If you're wondering how he can be in two places at once, it may be obvious now that the other Obama--the one speaking to reporters in D.C.--is made entirely of wax. The real one was here in San Francisco getting his groove on in the Haight.

He was a little hung over Tuesday morning (above), but his handlers took pretty good care of him.

In truth, the wax Obama was the one here in the Bay Area. It is part of a large scale wax figure exhibit in which the wax Obama kicks the wax Barry Bond's ass. Rumor has it both will be dressed up as lucha libres and on display in front of AT&T Park.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


Last Sunday's cover of The New York Times Magazine featured a contemplative image of President Obama. We know he is deep in thought because of his posture.

To indicate thought, one must have some part of the hand pressed against the face, or, preferably the head. Think of Rodin's The Thinker.

Think also of Walter Benjamin. No one's author photos are more about thought than his. In fact, in one of the photos, he seems to be in pain he's thinking so hard.












So, the semiotics of this cover place Obama in the line of people who have been known to be driven more by thought than anger, more by reflection than reaction. The Benjamin photo on the right makes him look like he's debating about which wedge of cheese to put on his cracker, whereas the image of Obama creates an aura of deep thought. It takes his entire left hand to hold up his head there are so many ideas in there.

What does this mean? Well, it may tell us more about Obama than the cover itself. That is, it tells us what we think about Obama. We replicate what we already believe.

I believe I like this cover. It wavers between illustration and photorealism. Its color palette is almost washed out, and that flatness contrasts against the depth of Obama's visage. The effect is essentially positive.

Ultimately, this cover evokes a dignified, reflective, intelligent president, who may or may not be thinking about his post move.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Friday, April 10, 2009

The HBO President

Politico and New York magazine's excellent Daily Intel have rundowns of Barack Obama and his family's television habits. 


His love for The Wire and television sports is already well-known--he mentioned The Wire as his favorite show a few times on the campaign trail, and he was featured on ESPN on a Barackatology segment, where he picked the NCAA tournament. (For the record, he picked a lot of chalk, and of course, he ended up picking the champion, North Carolina.)

Two shows are signaled out by the two articles: Entourage and Gossip Girl. For the uninitiated, Entourage is about a movie star who bring three of his friends, one of them himself a former star, to California with him as he tries to make it big. The show is based loosely on Mark Wahlberg's life and the agent is based on Ari Emanuel, the brother of Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel

But the familial relationship is not why Obama watches the show--like everyone else, it has to be the fantasy aspect of an existence lived by a different set of rules and standards. Though the show has legitimate drama and tension, the underlying message to me is the fantasy of American men living in a world of work and play without female guidance or less sinisterly, the positive but complicated nature of male friendship. Of course, it's about the glamour of Hollywood too.

There might be some parallels between life in the White House, though it's not exclusively a male-oriented world, and gritty details of running government seems essentially less romantic. 

Gossip Girl is at its essence about class, and the difficulties class relationships cause among a relatively undifferentiated group of privileged prep school students. And it's about the essential seriousness of high school, and of course, adults watching it see the parallels between it and their own complicated lives, which remind them of high school. 

There might be some parallels between life in the White House, though it's not exclusively a male-oriented world, and gritty details of running government seems essentially less romantic. The fact that Obama loves Entourage is just another piece of evidence that confirms his essential masculinity. Combine that with at least a reference to Gossip Girl, also shows his desire to keep up with pop culture. 

Though their popularity exclude them from true cult status, the fervent nature of followers of Gossip Girl--New York spends many column inches each week confirming its authenticity--and Entourage point to popular culture watchers--count our president among them--that at least knowing about the shows is crucial. 


--J.S.







Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Topps Trading Cards

Last week, I purchased my first pack of the "Inaugural Edition President Obama" Topps trading cards. It was a big day. Within five minutes I had purchased both a gigantic burrito and a slim but exciting sleeve of Obama Topps.

At $2.00 for 6 cards and a sticker, it was no great deal--my burrito was only a dollar more--but the cards have zero fat grams and are more friendly to animals.

I had high hopes for the cards.

I imagined a photo of Obama dunking over Dick Cheney; perhaps one of him making a long downfield pass to Joe Biden; I was especially looking forward to the one of Obama and Hillary doing the high-five after that wicked alley-oop ESPN keeps running on the highlight reels.

Instead, I got cards in which there were a lot of ties.

A red tie, a blue tie, more red ties. And blazers. Who puts a guy wearing a tie and a blazer on a trading card? Instead of calling these "trading cards," I propose Topps change the name to "trading favors cards," since that's what most of my scenes seem to be about.

There appear to be 90 different cards in all and 18 stickers. That seems hard to believe. Are there really 90 different images of Mr. Obama talking to other people? Topps gets points for the attempt to make "Pioneer at Harvard Law" edgy with the black and white photo of Obama in the turtleneck and leather jacket. But, those points get taken away by the half-witted "Cool Running Mates" tag.

My goal is not simply to collect all 90 cards but to rank the lamest of 90. Sure, sure, I'll also be happy to write about the "best" Obama cards, but unless Topps includes images from SemiObama, I'm not convinced we're going to learn much.

My nomination for the lamest card from this set is the "Ready for Prime Time" action shot of President Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Could anything be less actiony than two heads of state in suits and ties strolling through an English garden?

---D.R.

Friday, April 3, 2009

More on Obama as Icon

Off an on throughout era Obama, we've been talking about Barack Obama as an icon. As we've said here and elsewhere, Obama's ubiquitous image and the places that image appears, makes him more than a celebrity. His visage--and the fact that we can use "visage" rather than face--connotes reverence, hope, and transformation.

Take a look at the objects below: coins, plates--even stained glass. Notice how Obama's face has replaced the traditional icon.















































































In addition to coins and plates and stained glass, there are even images of Obama as an actual icon (see above).


What this means is that people are locating in Obama's image the emotional and psychological qualities normally reserved for religious figures like saints. To be sure, this helped him win the election. But, the downside is that we have high expectations of saints--even higher for deities. What happens when Mr. Obama cannot answer prayers?

---D.R.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Roundup on Obama in Europe

The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland on Obama's first press conference in Europe as president.




A short piece on why the president won't weigh in on European football, er, soccer, er, football.

The Los Angeles Times on Obama's promise to listen and lead.


The Telegraph's (London) Philip Sherwell on the problems that Obama might face in Europe.

More from us soon!

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

More Obama and Basketball

I think this says more about the media than it does about Barack Obama, but yet another prediction has come from our president: Lakers v. Cavs in the NBA final. 

Monday, March 30, 2009

CJR analyzes the Professor Obama meme

and finds it derogatory.

What a President Does

President Obama is the leader of the United States. That much is certain, despite the protestations of some.


But what is less clear is what it means to be president. Or in this case, to lead.

Looking at the Oxford English Dictionary's definitions (subscription required) for lead is somewhat instructive. The first definition is "To bring or take (a person or animal) to a place" is the most direct and literal/physical meaning. 

The second definition is the one I find most intriguing--"to accompany and show the way to: to conduct, guide, esp. to direct or guide by going on in advance; to cause to follow in one's path." 

This one and the fifth are the most relevant to the actions of a president outside of war (which is covered in the fourth definition). The fifth reads:  "To guide with reference to action or opinion; to bring by persuasion or counsel to or into a condition; to conduct by argument or representation to a conclusion; to induce to do something."

Looking at the Oxford almost always surprises me, because it often reveals telling subtleties of language. In this case, the definition that focuses on accompaniment and showing--that leading is as much an act of being as it is showing. It's clear that part of Obama's mission is convince the country that improvement is on the way both through direct persuasion*, as highlighted in the fifth definition,  and through his calmness

In other words, leading is more than decision and speech making; it is indirect and subtle.

--J.S.

*This whole section focuses on the things the Obama administration is doing and has done.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Oba-Mart

Last week, I was in the Oakland Wal-Mart and came across a most unlikely sight--an entire display of framed photos of Barack Obama. As some scholars have noted, Wal-Mart has become the one place in America where people of all races and classes interact rather seamlessly, leading to the compelling argument that the large box store has become America's new commons.

This is certainly the case in Oakland, where a staggering cross-section of the Bay Area's population comes for iPods, diapers, Oakland Raiders gear, and huge packages of toilet paper. So, it should not have come as such a surprise that this wall of Obama images fronted the main isle from the entrance of the store to the electronics.

After all, Wal-Mart markets itself as a patriotic place. It appeals to blue-collar, traditional family values, and these images of Obama position him in that light. Obama not for the edgy indy crowd (a la Shephard Faiery) but mainstream Obama, mass-market Obama, populist Obama, non-threatening Obama, American Obama.

Indeed, as I was standing in the aisle, taking these photographs, a woman stopped on her way out to scold me: "That's cheating," she said. "You can't just take pictures. You have to buy them. I'm sure he can use the money." We joked about this for a while and chatted on our way out of the store, when something very interesting happened.

Both of us were carrying small bags--we had made minor purchases in the electronics department--however, when we approached the security guard at the exit she got stopped, while I walked on through with no questions whatsoever. Why did she have her bag and receipt checked? Well, she was African American, and I am not; so perhaps that provides an answer.

During the campaign, it was not uncommon to hear complaints that if Obama got elected "blacks" would "take over" or "think they would be entitled to everything." At this Wal-Mart, in Oakland, that proved not to be the case.

The most troubling detail of all? The security guard was African American.

---D.R.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

President Obama's NCAA Tournament Picks

Today at Noon, ESPN released President Obama's completed bracket for the 2009 NCAA Men's basketball championship.

Of course, the one question on everyone's mind is: Does he have Binghamton going all the way?

Spoiler alert!

He does not. The president picks the University of North Carolina and its weepy coach over the Louisville Cardinals and their coach, Rick Pitino, who has never cried in his life.

His other final four teams, Pittsburgh and Memphis are no big shockers. In fact, the President has no real upsets in his bracket, though he does pick VCU to upend UCLA in the opening round.

Monday, March 16, 2009

On Trash Talking

This image, part of a larger article about Barack Obama's attendance at a recent Wizards-Bulls game, seems to be unprecedented in its metaness


In the image, Miles Rawls, wearing a Barack Obama shirt, "trash-talked" with President Obama during the game. Trash talking is a noted aspect of basketball culture, one whose best practitioners are celebrated within the basketball community, although the practice is much more celebrated among players than fans, for the obvious reason that fans don't always attend each other's arenas. 

In fact, among true rivalries, such trash talking can be dangerous for an opposing fan. So the exchange between Rawls and Obama is unique in the comfort Obama felt in trash-talking in the other person's arena. 

But there is also comfort in Rawls trash talking the president of the United States. Perhaps wearing his image made him more comfortable, Obama's personality, or both.

--J.S.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Imagine If Barack Obama Was Losing His Hair

As New York's Vulture column snarkily notes, the story about Barack Obama turning grey is back. We'll let them talk about the coverage. We have a more basic question--what does it mean that our president is getting grey hair?


If you believe television's vanity commercials, greyness=oldness, the most visual example is here, as a dyed-up heroes Walt Frazier and Keith Hernandez "rescue" Emmitt Smith from the "Running Back Rest Home" by dye-ing his goatee. That's friendship!

But out of tv-land, the message grey sends is a little more subtle. 

*It signifies stress. The Times headlines its story:  "For Young President, Flecks of Grey," suggesting that young is a contrast to grey. It makes the stress comparison more specifically here:
For a guy who prides himself on projecting a stress-free demeanor, the changes above his temples are speckled evidence that perhaps the psychological and physical strains of the job — never mind the long process of winning it — are in fact taking something of a toll. (Experts say stress can contribute to whitening locks.)

*It signifies gravitas. As the Washington Post headline notes, "Obama's Wearing His Grays as Distinguished Look of the Presidency" 

*And it does so by tying those two things to age. Essentially, the message is that whatever is happening--stress or age--that Obama's image in no way suffers from this change. Either he's taking the job seriously or getting older, both of which compliment his efforts as president.

As always, this coverage reveals as much if not more about the coverage than it does about Obama. The interviews with his barber suggest the lengths reporters will go to read and interpret anything having to do with Obama. 

Just imagine if he was going bald!

--J.S.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

New Recovery Logo: A Brief Semiotic Rundown


Via Talking Points Memo.


Here is the new logo for projects being funded by the stimulus bill. As is true with product launches and political campaigns, recovery campaigns need symbols, as the President said in remarks today.
These emblems are symbols of our commitment to you, the American people -- a commitment to investing your tax dollars wisely, to put Americans to work doing the work that needs to be done," Obama said. "So when you see them on projects that your tax dollars made possible, let it be a reminder that our government -- your government -- is doing its part to put the economy back on the road of recovery.
 I like the logo's inherent retroness, built on the notion that it's speaking  in images, save for the website address, which also serves a tag for government involvement. My impression is that signs have taken a turn for the textual over the past few decades, so this feels like a throwback. At the same time, it does not feel anchored in a particular time period, so it does not feel entirely nostalgic. 

The bottom left hand corner suggests a plant, and the right has gears, with either a plus or a cross in the center (adding or aiding--you make the call.) The plant presumably means green energy, but it could also mean just growth in general. The gears suggest working together toward a larger purpose.

I don't like the top half of the logo; the balance between the patriotic stars and "recovery.gov" seems off, even if that construction is intentional. The logo seems to want to forego the "recovery.gov"; it seems like a compromise. 

These individual components are surrounded by a circle, which suggests a wholeness and completion. Or perhaps smoothness and ease. Or maybe it's just a circle!

GreenSooner at Kos has a brief history of recovery logos.

--J.S.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Another Magazine Count

At the Borders in Nashua, New Hampshire, a full 13 magazines had Barack and/or Michelle Obama on the cover, 14 if you count the commemorative New York Times from the election. Looks like the press is hoping for its own Obama stimulus program. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My Favorite Campaign Image

SemiObama posted a lot of images during the campaign. I mean, a lot. We ranked t-shirts, judged coffee mugs, compared Obama dolls, and even discussed the various forms of New York Times Obama swag, but we never really talked about our favorite pro-Obama image.

For me, it is the "Obama Next" graphic above. What I like about this piece is its synthetic simplicity. By "synthetic" I am referring not to something fake but to the process of synthesis. It collates patriotism (through its red, white and blue color palette), optimism ("got next"), an awareness of catch phrases and tag lines in popular culture ("Got Milk"), a very cool retro design, and a subtle yet compelling reference to race through the semiotics of basketball.

I also like that it incorporates an Obama-specific metaphor--basketball--as a form of political rhetoric. The ad reminds us that basketball is Obama's sport of choice, as opposed to Bush's more patrician, more Anglo, more exclusionary golf. Its pick-up-game lingo, "got next" also signals a generational shift, as if to say, Obama's is the next team to take the court of American politics.

As his presidency matures, we will start to write more about images of him as a president as opposed to him as a candidate, but, we couldn't resist this last bit of campaign SemiO. My hunch is he'll sink the free-throw . . .

---D.R.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lakoff via 538 on The Obama Code

As soon as 538 stops being interesting, we'll stop linking to them. But here's a George Lakoff piece (he of the noted frames theory of political communication) about how Barack Obama speaks to audiences in seven distinct ways. It's worth reading in its entirety, and it focuses on the indirect way Obama is speaking about "old values," as Lakoff puts it. 

Monday, February 23, 2009

Obama's Blackberry

Check out The New Yorker's Bruce McCall's rendering of President Obama's Blackberry. It's like the funny parts of a Jay Leno monologue, touching on his relationships with Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and Joe Biden, as well as the continuing cabinet and Illinois political crises.* I like what might be an unintentional part of the humor--that Obama's special Blackberry is not special because of its security but its features. That's a fantasy anyone who uses technology has...


--J.S.

*My students and I once watched a Leno monologue as part of a humor class I was teaching and determined that there were always a few funny jokes. It was the frequency that was the issue.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

538 on Obama Adminstration's rhetoric tactics

Sean Quinn writes about the way Barack Obama and his press secretary use others' media rants as a contrast to their own rhetorical and governing style.


Media discourse is itself an interpretative text--that words themselves are part of a larger text that encompass not only the directed speech toward Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santelli but larger audiences as well.  So while the reply might seem specific, the message, as Silver notes, is larger.

--J.S.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Remainders: The Obama/McCain 7-11 Cup Election

I never blogged about this at the time, because it seemed so trivial on Election Day. Every time I walk into the kitchen, I am greeted with my Obama 7-11 cup. The cups are interested in that neither features the face of the candidates--only their respective party colors.


I was reminded of this after the stimulus vote, when only three Republicans in the Senate and zero in the House voted for the bill. I guess the 7-11 folks were onto something: it's all about party.

--J.S.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Shepard Fairey on Charlie Rose

The artist who created famous Obama hope icon talks about it on Charlie Rose (via Slate).

Mr. Process

The White House website has a photo gallery up of the process in putting together the stimulus package. The essay features a remarkable array of unremarkable photos, at least in terms of composition and the actual subjects of the photos--many are of various figures dressed in suits. 


The most interesting photos are of Rahm Emanuel on his cell phone while Obama closes his eyes; a photo of a woman raising her hand; and Obama moving toward the stage for his press conference.

By unremarkable, I don't mean that the photos aren't cool or good photographic quality; it's just that government in action essentially means a lot of people sitting around and having meetings, hardly the subject of dramatic photos.

The photos say more as a collective whole, which is that Obama met with a variety of groups in order to negotiate/sell the bill; the photos include a dinner with the Blue Dog (conservative) Democrats, a casual moment with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Obama with his hand on the back of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as they look at the Oval Office window.

 As Jed Lawson suggests, the images tell the story "of a President who reached out to his political opponents to give them an opportunity to do the right thing."

In other words, the photos suggest process--and notable is the White House's careful documentation of process. We've talked before about Obama and his focus on the way to get things done as well as getting things done. 

 Ron Brownstein suggests that Obama "appears increasingly focused on ends, not means." While it's true that passing the stimulus bill was the most important thing, Obama seemed to believe getting there by demonstrating a willingness to listen to Republicans and fiscal conservatives in his own party was an important part of the project of getting the bill passed.

Process during the election meant voters were helping Obama win election by calling, knocking on doors, raising money, and emailing. 

Now we see Obama as the center of the drama, shaking hands, having meetings, and so forth in his efforts to demonstrate to the country he 's not only appealing to those who elected him but those who he serves--the whole country. 

--J.S.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Jack Shafer/Zadie Smith on Obama

Jack Shafer sums up and adds his commentary to Zadie Smith's piece on Obama's speaking habits. Both pieces are worth reading, and I especially like Smith's idea of "Dream City." 


Indeed, Obama is really not from anywhere in particular, but he has strong roots in Kansas, Hawaii, California, New York City, Boston, Chicago (and Springfield), and Washington, D.C. He has relatives all over the world. Such geographic diffuseness, shared too by John McCain and Hillary Clinton, Obama's two main rivals for the presidency, can only lead to a bigger sense of the relationship between geography and identity, a definitive plus when being a politician.

It also helps being a person. This country is big and while it contains a core culture, the differences between us can also be significant, enhanced by tone and dialect and masked by common language. At the same time, we're a mobile society, and so where we're from is sometimes a difficult determination. I think that's why McCain, Clinton, and Obama have never really suffered being outsiders in the states from which they made their big political leaps. 

--J.S.

Friday, February 13, 2009

On speaking

The press conference has become an important part of any president's experience; presidents are judged by how many press conferences they hold, who they call on, and most importantly how they answer. As an aside, press conferences are no longer press conferences--reporters are now the media not the press, and it's not really a conference either. 

In any case, here's how press conferences work: A man or woman stands in front of a lot of reporters, who are trying to achieve a few things. They want to get information through direct interrogation. They want to look smart. And they are hoping most of all that the question they ask leads to "news"--which means information that the subject of the press conference was not going to reveal.

The subject of the press conference wants to look smart, seem open and willing to talk casually and formally at the same time, and most of all, not tell the reporters anything he or she did not want to say. In other words, it's both a chance for information exchange and a bit of a test of wills.

It's clearly performance on both sides, and the performance is for the subject, reporters, and a variety of audiences, all of whom have rooting interests in the outcome. 

In this case, the "news," defined as something new or noteworthy, was more meta--Obama had a good press conference and made his case to the American public. That news has little to do with the substance of press conference but rather its context and style. Indeed, the biggest "news" that seemed to come out of the press conference was the fact that Obama called on a Huffington Post reporter, the type of meta-news that the Internet loves. 

The evaluations of Obama's conference make sense if you see the bigger picture. One reporter, John Dickerson said he sounded like a professor. I think it's been a while since Dickerson has been in school--what professor stands in front of the room and takes questions from his students like that--wearing an expensive suit? And why is being a professor a bad thing? (Note: I'm a professor and I think it's a good thing.)

But Dickerson's observation speaks to the larger point that Obama had answers to the questions, as a professor is supposed to.

I agree with Jon Stewart--it was nice to hear answers in complete sentences. And it was an important milestone in a president's term: the first news conference and one in which he seemed relatively comfortable. In the first test of wills, Obama clearly won. But the reporters won too by having lots of written material for their stories.

--J.S.

Friday, February 6, 2009

One of our favorite Onion photos

President Obama as comic-obsessed Commander-(or should we say Conan-der)-in-Chief.

See the hilarious story in the recent issue of The Onion that tracks the inability of the president's new cabinet to keep up with his comic book references . . .

Obama as president, not candidate

A little more than three months ago, Barack Obama was still a candidate. Three weeks ago, he was president elect. And now he's president. 


What's interesting from semiotic point of view is that he has become much less prominent as a cultural phenomenon as opposed to a political one. Interesting popular culture renditions of Obama undoubtedly are still being produced at a rapid rate, but they are not breaking through to mainstream media outlets, as they were before his inauguration. And media outlets are undoubtedly selling fewer commemorative issues; I suspect the sales of the Franklin Mint coins are going down too. 

One reason is obvious--the economy is dire straights, and media attention is focused on the battles between Republicans and Democrats, and to a lesser extent between the administration and Congress. 

But there is another reason. A candidacy is all about possibility--what the candidate might do and should do. The possibilities lend themselves to myth-making, and indeed, part of a good campaign is telling a good story. But once a president is elected, a president can do things, and the practical trumps the theoretical. 

Now that Obama is president, the symbols still matter, but not as much as fixing the economy.

--J.S.

Friday, January 30, 2009

On working without a jacket

From The New York Times and Daily Routines, a note about the way Barack Obama is working as the president. The article focuses not only on the new more casual dress code but also how Obama schedules his day. 


A few notable semiotic moments:

*He openly reads The New York Times, and in fact, based his denunciation of corporate greed on material he read there. This is both a nod to the importance of the Times and the sign of a president who wants to have contact outside the bubble of White House staff. (As a side note, I have been wondering for a while what Barack Obama reads, especially after the Sarah Palin interview with Katie Couric.  I particularly want to know if he reads Daily Kos or Talking Points Memo. as they seem to write with the idea that people who are high-level decision makers read their copy)

*He is not wearing a suit coat but is wearing a tie. The Times and others break this down, but it is an important nod to process and image--the statement is that working hard is more important than being formal. That the president does not always wear a suit in the office (apparently Nixon always wore on) is supposed to show his constituents that he cares more about productivity than tradition.

*He works out first and then goes to his office. I think this is generational (though not universally so). Unless you are a banker, people of our generation like to get that workout in first rather than lunch or after. Lunches and dinners are now prime time for working, and as we all know, time shrinks after you start working.

*We're fascinated with our president. We want any information we can get. The Daily Routines site includes mostly writers (Mr. Rogers being a notable exception), and to include Barack Obama shows another level of interest in the way he works. 

Expect the suitjacketless look to take off....and our workouts to begin earlier. 

--J.S.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

NPR goes SemiObama

Tuesday's Talk of the Nation took a page from the SemiObama playbook to focus on the use of Obama in advertising campaigns, such as the Pepsi & Ben and Jerry's ads.

Tamara Keith, an excellent reporter at KQED radio here in San Francisco, first filed the report for NPR back on January 16. In that report, she describes how IKEA has built a replica of the Oval Office. Talk about Democracy . . .oh wait, that's Socialism . . .

Tuesday's program built on Keith's report and mused about Obama's branding ability when it comes to business (back to Democracy; or is that Capitalism?).

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Our First "President Obama" Sighting from the Field

We've seen plenty of inaugural items on television, but this is the first post-inauguration president item I've seen in person in the Bay Area. It was spotted on the back of a green sedan in the Richmond district in the parking lot of Delano's grocery store, 27th & Geary.

It's a nice if odd image---MLK with fingers locked, sort of leaning on Obama's shoulder like a pensive spouse, gazing out the window at the robins in the backyard. Obama, looking as though he just heard the tea kettle whistle. The composition of the sticker makes you wonder about the intention behind the positionality of the two men. Is MLK "leaning on" Obama? Is he a kind of guardian angel on his shoulder? Are they two faces on the African American Mount Rushmore?

As Obama's presidency moves from its infancy into adulthood, it will be fascinating to see how the images of him in popular culture mature as well. What other icons will he be paired with? And, will MLK get jealous?

The Hope poster in the National Portrait Gallery and New York Times

Check the article out here.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Obamas Freewheelin, A Guest Post by Ed Carpenter

One of the magical aspects of Obama's Obamaness is the ability for people to see all aspects of their lives in him. Malleable, importable, sampleable, we put him everywhere. Our guest poster, Ed Carpenter, sees Bob Dylan in Obama, especially after the photo of him and Michelle on the New York Times. Carpenter has a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. He has worked as an editor and reporter for several Bay Area newspapers, before jumping
ship to the University of San Francisco, where he plies his trade writing campus news and magazine stories for the Web.

Obamas, Freewheelin’

What happened to us at the moment Barack Obama became president on January 20? Was there a cultural shift? Was it the beginning of a new social, community-based movement? Was it the simple swearing in of the next American presidential politician?

Whatever it was, it made me want to walk the six or seven blocks from work to buy a New York Times first thing on Wednesday morning, before the crowds scooped them all up. Starbucks, across the street from the drugstore where I ended up, was all ready sold out.

There, on the cover, were the smiling faces of the new first couple. I was surprised. I couldn’t recall ever seeing the president of the United States and first lady looking so happy together. (Especially in such dire times.) And as I thought about what surprised me, I realized it was just that – the togetherness.

If memory serves, only Al and Tipper’s held-a-little-too-long kiss during the 2000 presidential campaign recalls any similar evidence of a “presidential” couple in love going back to at least President Carter’s administration.

Looking at the Times’ photo brought to mind another image that was circulated widely around 1963 and again around 2001. The first was the album cover to Bob Dylan’s celebrated Freewheelin’ recording. The second was a semiotic mirroring of that album cover in the movie Vanilla Sky nearly 40 years later. Am I reaching too far? Maybe, but there is something about the promise and potential of relative youth captured in all three images. Beyond the setting, there is a craving in the way the couples cling to each other. A virility. It’s as if they are balanced on the edge of a swimming pool in winter about to plunge in – perfectly determined to make the best of it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bush Street becomes Obama Street

One of the main east/west arteries in San Francisco is the "one-way" Bush street. Over the past few months, residents of the Bay Area have been unoffically changing "Bush street" to "Obama street."

Similarly, clever San Franciscans have been playing with the linguistic similarities between "PRESIDio" street and "PRESIDent," creating their own semiotic indicators about the direction of the country.

Play with official signs has always been a form of peaceful (and symbolic) protest, and this is no different. It's just a sign of the times . . .

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Most Memorable Image

Inauguration day is all about semiotics; in fact, it may be the most sign-laden day in American culture. More than the Super Bowl, more than election day, more than the 4th of July, inauguration day blends the images of both old and new America. Architecture meets pomp meets flags meets statesmen meets monument meets memory.

This was a day of revolutionary politics and revolutionary pictures. None of us will forget the swarm of bodies along the mall, the embrace of Presidents Obama and Bush, the veteran in the crowd who stood at attention, saluting through the entire address, or the image of the Obama girls taking photos of their father. It was an event that seemed to need the visual plane to register its importance.

To me, the most memorable image was the transportation of and Obama's utilization of the Lincoln Bible.
The process of retrieving and delivering the Bible is, in itself, profoundly symbolic, but watching the guards carry it like a surgeon might cradle a vital organ about to be transplanted drove home the deep historical significance of the Bible--a significance echoed by the entire day.

As a text, the Lincoln Bible is simply remarkable. It's beautiful in its simplicity; the humble design so at odds with its historic significance.

Here's hoping the new president will be able to harness the unifying power of the president whose Bible both anchored his inaugural ship and pushed it out onto the choppy waters of our America.

---D.R.

New President

A few preliminary notes: 


*We have come to expect nothing but greatness for Barack Obama's speeches, and this was one was well-delivered and inspirational.

I thought it was striking how thinly disguised the reputiation of the previous administration was, specifically the line, "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" a line clearly referencing the previous administration's policy on torture, and the line criticizing those who think, "our system cannot tolerate too many big plans the discussion of the government." Diane Feinstein's short speech was pretty partisan too....

*I was struck by how much blue there was on the stage. I wonder if (and surmise that) Obama chose his red tie to go with his white shirt and blue background.

*Sometimes when NBC panned to a reaction shot, people broke their reaction to the speech and reacted to being on television. So the whole point of the reaction was lost.

*Beyond these small observations, the whole scene was remarkable in the combination of its massive scope and relative observed simplicity--a few speeches, swearings in, performances, and we have a new president. Something so simple was complexly orchestrated after a long, long process. And now, it bears repeating, we have a new president.

--J.S.

Confession, more thoughts

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word inauguration comes from a similar Latin word, meaning "consecration or instalment under good auspices or omens"--how appropriate given the love for Obama from so many.

I never watched the full inauguration before, and I only have vague memories of ever seeing the swearing in. There is a lot of pomp and circumstance. 

It's also interesting to see how many notables--both politicians and celebrities--have been sighted on the way to the ceremony. We've seen Muhammad Ali, Magic Johnson, and every politician you can think of from Dan Quayle to Joe Lieberman to Edward Kennedy to John McCain to Al Gore to John Kerry.

Update: Bush and Obama enter the limo together from the White House.  It's a black Cadillac (an American car) with two flags on each side of the hood. 

More to come. 

--J.S.




Reading the inauguration


The stage is set. Images we thought we might only juxtapose in imagination now appear reality. How we read them tells us as much about us as they do about our government and our country.

Initial Inauguration thoughts

I've been reading some grumbling at the expense of the inauguration, and that this would not be the reaction if John McCain had been elected. 


It's simple--Barack Obama is the first African-American president and a young energetic politician who inspires for a number of different reasons. The combination of those factors has made his inauguration much more significant than probably any other in history. There have been a lot of firsts, but none so significant since the inauguration of the first president, George Washington. 

Combine that with the sourness attached to the departing president and a deep economic crisis and you have the recipe for an exciting, even cathartic celebration.

--J.S.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Washington photos


We'll write a lot more about the inauguration in the next few days, but it's worth noting that the city of Washington is more than ready for its new president to show up. Recently, one of the semi-Obamians had a chance to go to Washington D.C. Not surprisingly, semiotic cues regarding the coming inauguration of Barack Obama were in abundance. 


First there are the ubiquitous t-shirt selling places everywhere. This does not seem odd--save this is for a president (elect). The idea of a president as a cultural figure rather than just a politician is on display here (and everywhere around tourist areas). Note the references to The Matrix and Rocky here--and these are positive ones. That's different from many previous political figures; most cultural references are positive rather than mocking ones.
Below we have a reference to the "Change" part of Obama's message--brought to us in an ad for the SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, including more than 850,000 government workers. The ad takes partial credit for the election and invites people to fight for "Change that works." J Ro makes a good point about how Obama's slogan and imagery have now become part of the commercial world. And we see here and in the next photo (and in the countless commemorative and inauguration issues) that corporate interests see in Obama an opportunity.



On the other side of the bus stop is an ad for BET television, which also claims participation in Obama's election.

There is also the "Inauguration Super Store," which displays a variety of t shirts and other knick-knacks, including an Obama figurine. 
Obviously this commercial focus comes from a mix of Obama being a compelling cultural figure, a contrast to the previous administration, and a culture much more adept at adjusting to commercial opportunities.  People want to be a part of this new administration, and one of the ways they can do that is through buying. See Sunday's Curtis (which has provided a compelling narrative about Obama) for more on this phenomenon.
Next store to the Inauguration Superstore was the Zenith Gallery, which had a display of Obama art. Most of the art we have seen so far has been representational and this display is no different, save for the abstract O. Given Obama's presence as a real human being, I think it would be hard to paint Obama any other way. Seeing these paintings reminded me of the portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt painted by my great-grandfather Max Bigman, a WPA artist in the 1930s. The painting is purely representational, even in the midst of widely diverging artistic trends,  as if to say here is a man who cannot be abstracted.


As we will see in 24 hours or so, an Obama presidency will be a reality. The above photos, representative of a much larger semiotic set, suggest that although the story of Obama becoming president is an inspiring narrative, it is also complicated in the way Obama and his images are reflected in political, commercial, and popular culture

--J.S.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

When the Superhero needs a Superhero: Spiderman II

As we discussed earlier, Marvel is coming out with the Spiderman comic.  There are so many fascinating inaugural texts that demand the SemiObama lens, but this one seemed to need another take--especially given the header photo on our main page.

Released on January 14, the comic features a plot line sure to thrill both Obama and Spider-Man devotees. Peter Parker gets assigned to cover the inauguration but spots two identical Obamas. Savvy about these kinds of things, Parker determined that one of the Obamas must be an impostor.

How right he is!

Using basketball--I kid you not--to determine the real Obama, Spider-Man swoops in to save the day (and the president) (and the free world).

In an article from The Detroit Free Press, Steve Perri (not the lead singer for Journey) admits that this confluence of pop culture superstars transcends mere politics:

"' ...The significance of the comic outweighs whoever I voted for,' says Perri, an investment adviser who has about 1,600 Spider-Man comics. 'To have Spider-Man have such a pinnacle moment as meeting the president -- it's history.'"

History indeed.

There is even a fist-bump.

Stick that in your web E. D. Hill . . . .

--D.R.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Inaugural Poster

When it was first announced that Shepard Fairey would be designing President-elect Obama's inaugural poster, it was the first time this institutional semiotic project was given to someone whose iconography is all about fringe. It is amazing to consider that a guy who got his start doing radical street art would, just a few years later,
canonize the image of the most celebrated president in a generation.

But such is the time we live in; such is the cache and vision of Barack Obama.

As a semiotic text, the poster neither delights nor disappoints. The iconic images of the White House and Capitol building add a layer of stuffiness to the poster, but from an aesthetic perspective, they balance out the compositional field. The seal on the other hand, really solemnizes the image. It looks to be emblazoned on Obama's chest, like a Hawthornian scarlet eagle he can neither hide nor wash off.

The V-shaped stripes--perhaps connoting his unlikely victory--quarter off the hoards of screaming fans at the first Beatles concert. In truth, Obama's popularity--his ability, Lennon and McCartney-like--who whip spectators into a frenzy has become part of his image, so to encode this detail into the poster is a shrewd move. It also apportions some of the spotlight to the populace. After all, Obama was about the grass roots, the common person. Our identity is his.

Most interesting is the hybridized Obama/Gandhi quote that mastheads the poster. Is this an intentional comparison to Mahatma? To his unflinching devotion to the poor, to his political morality, to his nearly God-like level of service and sacrifice?

If so, that's a hard row to hoe; especially in near-depression America. But, if the tag line is not so much about Obama but about us, then it creates a bizarre but pleasing triumvirate of Gandhi/Obama/Kennedy in which the responsibilities of governance lie not with the gods but with their people.

As the inauguration nears, we here at SemiObama will be your inaugural semiotics headquarters, reading both the major and the minor, the mainstream and the marginal.

---D.R.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Top Obama Mugs

Who can resist the double entendre of Obama mug?


You can go here to see more Obama mugs, along with shirts, bumper stickers, posters, and more.

Today, National Public Radio ran a segment on how difficult it will be for the White House and the government to control these kinds of products. The President-elect (and president) will actually have very little control over his image and his name.

---D.R.