Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Opinion

Obama as Roman emperor -- the rise and fall of the propaganda master

President Barack Obama's campaign of images, emotions, and themes won him tremendous popularity – and the presidency. Now, his poll numbers are dragging, his followers disillusioned. To understand the 'ruler cult' cycle, we must look to ancient Roman emperors like Augustus.

By Jack Carlson / October 4, 2010



Oxford, England

Two years ago, Democrats were clamoring to ride in on Barack Obama’s coat tails. Proximity to the Obama persona was a prized political asset.

Skip to next paragraph

Today, amid dim presidential polling numbers, anxious Democrats are keeping their distance. Some, like Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas, have even used campaign ads to tout their defiance of Mr. Obama’s agenda.

To understand Obama's fall, we must understand his rise; and to do that, we must look to ancient history. It was neither for his resume nor his policies that America fell in love with him. In fact, Obama's policy priorities have turned out to be quite unpopular.

It was instead by following the lead of Rome's greatest emperors that Obama won (temporarily) America's awe and devotion. This sort of ruler cult begins to crumble, of course, when the ruler is required to make decisions and take positions under unprecedented media scrutiny.

In the art of self-promotion through images, Obama's closest parallels lived long before the age of YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle. Rome's first emperor, Augustus (63 BC – AD 14), was a master of manipulating what “mass media” there was. Through the propagation of carefully crafted, semi-divine portrait types, vague but appealing buzzwords, and abstract association with heroes of the past, Augustus and his successors won the public's support.

Augustus' fixed “portrait-type” was disseminated and recreated for public consumption across the empire in the form of statues, coins, and other artworks. Archaeologist Paul Zanker's “Power of Images in the Age of Augustus” describes this contrived likeness as “a calm, elevated expression” marked by “a timeless and remote dignity” – not unlike the blue-and-red portrait type designed for Obama by guerrilla-marketer Shepard Fairey.

This latter icon is seared into the mind of every American. Like Augustus' portrait, the image's omnipresence seemed to translate naturally into prestige and authority. But this process is not automatic: The image's success was dependent on our own, Western tradition of ruler cult, which dates back at least as far as Alexander the Great.

The portrait's effectiveness also depended on its aesthetic qualities. Mr. Fairey removed all imperfections from Obama's face, made his hair into a symmetrical arc, and set his jacket perfectly straight. More importantly, he imbued his picture of Obama with the gravitas and pietas which befits the ruler of the Western world.

Permissions

Read Comments

View reader comments | Comment on this story