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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

Jack Carlson is an archaeologist and Allbritton Scholar at Brasenose College, Oxford. A version of this essay first appeared in “American Thinker.”

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