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.
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Another portrait type of Obama's, created by Ron English and publicized by Yosi Sergant, fuses his features with Abraham Lincoln's. Obama's vaunted regard for Doris Kearns Goodwin's “Team of Rivals” and his use of the Lincoln Memorial as the site for his star-studded pre-inaugural concert (presented in the best tradition of bread-and-circus politics) also led to souvenir coins with images of both the 16th and 44th presidents.Skip to next paragraph
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Few in the American media stopped to ask what this all really meant. But we might get a better idea when we think about how 1st-century emperor Caligula's mint issued coins featuring his portrait alongside those of his more venerated predecessors; how early 2nd-century emperor Trajan modeled his image on Rome's apotheosized rulers; and how 4th-century emperor Constantine appropriated the monuments of previous “good emperors” to enhance his own esteem.
Obama's Roman counterparts also wrote messages on their coins: simple, positive themes that varied from emperor to emperor. Hadrian, for example, the worldly second-century emperor who withdrew the Roman army from Iraq, engraved his coins with the words CONCORDIA (union); RESTITUTOR (restorer or renewer); and, most strikingly, SPES (hope).
It is clear that Obama's Roman-ness runs far deeper than the much-mocked classical facade erected as the backdrop for his acceptance speech two years ago. And the president has certainly tried to keep his image campaign going in the Oval Office. He continues to use the once-ubiquitous rising-sun “identity” designed for him by the aptly-named Sol Sender. (Personality-cult rulers from Augustus through Louis XIV have sought to associate themselves with the sun.)
Meanwhile, by limiting photographers' access to many important events, the Obama White House obliges media editors to choose from a range of carefully selected, powerful images taken by White House photographer Pete Souza (who was also President Reagan’s official photographer)..
But Obama's ancient political tactics are not enough to maintain his prestige for two years in office; for unlike Augustus, the president has anything but a tight grip on the mass media. Obama’s rise relied on images, emotions, and themes; his fall has been the impossibility of making good on the superhuman expectations of a plugged-in populace. Even Shepard Fairey himself, the self-described “propaganda artist” to whom Obama’s campaign owes so much, has recently expressed disappointment with the President’s performance in office.
The Washington Post reports that as Obama's popularity reaches new lows, so do sales of Obama merchandise. Get your Obama “HOPE” merchandise now while the prices are at rock bottom. These artifacts belong, some day soon, in the Roman gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.