Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Guest Post: Marilyn DeLaure on Obama as Lincoln, FDR

Obama as Lincoln, FDR

A guest post by Marilyn DeLaure

Marilyn DeLaure is an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of San Francisco, where she teaches classes that look at the intersection of politics, rhetoric, and consumption. Her essays have appeared in Text and Performance Quarterly, Theatre Annual, Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement, the edited volume Confronting Consumption, and American Voices: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary Orators. Here, she gives a semiotic reading of two recent magazine covers that feature Obama and past presidents.

During the week of November 24, 2008, the covers of America’s two largest news magazines depicted Barack Obama as the new incarnation of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On the Newsweek cover, Obama stands in the foreground, casting behind him a gigantic shadow in the shape of Lincoln; the accompanying article includes an image of a penny with Obama’s copper profile replacing Honest Abe’s. Time Magazine features a smiling Obama edited into the iconic black-and-white photo of FDR driving a convertible—crisp fedora, jauntily tipped cigarette holder, pince-nez glasses and all.

The Newsweek cover aesthetics are graphic and bold, with bright colors and contemporary font. In the background, Lincoln looms large, looking thoughtful but a bit gauche in his stovepipe hat. Obama, on the other hand, anchors the lower right corner, feet set in a broad stance, his head turned slightly toward Lincoln, his gaze directed up and into the bright future: he radiates part Mad Men-cool panache, part superhero masculinity. Since we read both text and images from upper left to lower right, the great Lincoln visually flows into Obama, ennobling the young president-elect. Obama-as-Lincoln underscores the oratorical eloquence of both slim men from Illinois, in particular their power to unify a divided nation.

The Time FDR-Obama cover is easily invited by the historical moment: Obama was elected amidst the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The image evokes the greatness of both men, who overcame significant obstacles to win the presidency (polio-related disability for Roosevelt, racial politics for Obama). Obama-as-FDR elicits hope that this man—optimistically flashing his pearly whites, exuding presidential strength and boundless confidence—will help us conquer “fear itself,” restore confidence in world financial markets, and perhaps even buttress a failing domestic auto industry.

Framing a candidate or president-elect as the successor to past great presidents, or claiming they share desirable character traits, is certainly nothing new. (A good example is George HW Bush’s 1992 convention film:

But I don’t recall ever seeing such explicit melding of images of a president-elect with past presidents—visually arguing that Obama literally embodies the greatness of past presidents, that he is the new Lincoln, or Roosevelt. (Another striking Obama-Lincoln melding is Ron English’s drawing (left) Can we imagine Dubya, or Bill Clinton, or Senior Bush enshrined on the nickel? But Obama’s face somehow works. It’s remarkable how Barack Obama is already being canonized as one of the great presidents, even before having taken the Oath of Office.

1 comment:

AwAkeAndAnAlyzing said...

Your eye to critique and bring light to messages sent from advertisers amazes me. Thoughts about returning to your class or dialoging with you about world events often cross my mind and makes my life's "wish list." Maybe one of these days it will happen.

--Diana Collins