The Public Sphere and the Public Spectacle in Conflict: Barack Obama’s Presidential Campaign

HomeArticlesThe Public Sphere and the Public Spectacle in Conflict: Barack Obama’s Presidential Campaign
Obama 1

February 10, 2007:  A crowd of over 15,000 gathered at the Illinois Old State Capitol Building, where Abraham Lincoln had given his famous “House Divided” speech, anxiously waiting to hear another native son.  Loud, pulsating music by U2 and Van Halen, coupled with scores of television news crews and over 500 reporters added to the almost tangible energy of the gathering.  Although the setting seemed more like a rock concert to some, it was actually a carefully crafted political rally. [i]  Here, among the lights, the cameras, the noise, and the ever-present buzz of excitement, Senator Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President of the United States.  His look, his voice, and even his promises were spectacular: “[W]e can be one people, reaching for what’s possible, building that more perfect union”, he said, in the hopeful tone that would come to define his campaign.  “I’m in this race [n]ot just to hold an office, but to gather with you to transform a nation.” [ii] Through his words and actions, Obama sought to change the Union by introducing a new system of democratic discourse which included elevating and inspiring the public via a carefully crafted and politically positioned rhetorical stage.  To the great satisfaction of the thousands present for that announcement, his strategy paid off.  With a spark and a bang, the spectacular candidacy of Barack Obama had officially begun.

Something else was born along with Obama’s hope that evening.  A new standard for political communication entered the scene—on the one hand, simple, frank, and to the point; on the other flashy, catchy, a total experience rather than just words.  And like Obama’s February 10, 2007 announcement, it changed the political stage in an instant.  Not only the candidate, but his whole way of communicating to the American people was shiny and new.  The effect was significant, and the political spectacle which surrounded Obama worked to enhance his stature and create a presidential image that was cloaked with authority and awe.  The “rock concert”[iii] mentality he brought to the traditionally sterile environment of politics served to mythologize Obama as a different type of candidate who could not only restore America’s place in an interconnected world, but change it to fit a progressive model of politics.  It demonstrated, perhaps more powerfully than his words alone, that he was a different sort of candidate, one who was simultaneously a conserver of American ideals and an agent of change.  The oft-repeated promise was this:  He would lead the nation into the 21st century as the first post-partisan and post- racial president.  He would challenge and dismantle the status quo and allow for a new America to rise and take its place in a global community.  He would work to replace the politics of partisanship with a politics of reasoned discourse and cooperation.  In this new political space, an idyllic public sphere could develop where citizens freely exchange ideas.  And all of this with a little pizzazz.

This vision of promise painted in vivid prose and promoted in lively rallies matched the image of a confident and capable president who could fix the ills of a divided society. Millions found in the message something to believe. However, the spectacle itself may have simultaneously amplified and undermined Obama’s message of change.  After all, the nature of the spectacle is to conceal rather than to reveal, to dazzle rather than to rationalize.  At its heart, political spectacle is stagecraft designed to remove the people from the process by transforming them into spectators rather than active citizen participants.

In this chapter, we lay the foundation for an analysis of the tension between Obama’s rhetorical efforts to create a more vibrant and inclusive public sphere and his heavy use of the spectacle during the 2008 presidential campaign.  We focus on the campaign because of the dramatic change it represented in political communication, and because its message and media set the tone for Obama’s presidency.  Notably, we suggest that his rhetorical message of unity conflicted with the overarching rhetorical strategy of the spectacle.  While Obama’s candidacy was rooted in hope and change and represented an alternative way to deal with political divisions, this ethos may have been unintentionally undermined by the dazzling lights and distracting spectacle of his candidacy. Beyond this particular case, more pressing concerns remain to be answered:  Can true democratic discourse occur within a carefully crafted, always camera-ready campaign? What is the potential for the spectacle to act as smoke and mirrors, obfuscate communication, and perhaps inspire a new generation of voters all while keeping America entertained?

Calling for Contemporary Democratic Discourse

Much of Obama’s campaign message centered on his intended re-configuration of politics-as-usual into a more open public sphere which would enable democratic discourse.  At its heart, this was a Habermasian vision:  to open up the system and allow equal access, knowledge, and participation to all citizens. According to Obama, politicians were making decisions behind closed doors, leaving the American people in the dark regarding important issues.  These were strategic moves, he said, which helped politics to run as “a business and not a mission”[iv] and “turned government into a game.”[v] Unwilling to play any longer, he noted that much of the American public had “turned away in frustration.”[vi] Obama hoped to guide those willing into a more open and democratic public sphere, reminiscent of Habermas’ ideal.

According to Habermas, discourse and democracy work hand in hand to ensure freedom to citizens. True discourse is more than just communication; it is dependent on a series of requirements such that it is:

validity communication that is removed from contexts of experience and action and whose structure assures us: that the bracketed validity claims of assertions, recommendations, or warnings are the exclusive object of discussion; that participants, themes, and contributions are not restricted except with reference to the goal of testing the validity in question, that no force except that of the better argument is exercised; and that, as a result, all motives except that of the cooperative search for truth are excluded.[vii]

Rational argument and public debate reflect democratic values and support democratic norms.[viii]  Democracy, then, becomes “a question of finding arrangements which can ground the basic presupposition that the basic institutions of the society and the basic political decisions would meet with the unforced agreement of all those involved, if they could participate, as free and equal, in discursive will-formation.”[ix] Key here is the stipulation that the “better argument” is the only force of influence. In other words, democratic discourse does not rely on authority structures, markets, or other powers.[x] Reason, argument, and open dialogue are the only players allowed.

Successful communication, then, is based on the human ability to reason through various arguments. Individuals must be capable of thinking and sorting through the truth claims with which they are presented. This reasoned use of knowledge in language and action is what Habermas calls “communicative rationality.” [xi] According to him, the term “brings along with it the connotations of a noncoercively unifying, consensus-building force of a discourse in which the participants overcome their at first subjectively based views in favor of a rationally motivated agreement.”[xii] Habermas optimistically asserts that the public will be able to use good judgment if presented with ideal speech situations which meet basic guidelines of generality, autonomy, ideal role taking, power neutrality, and transparence. In such an ideal circumstance, decision making would be simple because truth would be easily deciphered and the “better argument” would always win.

But certain environmental factors are necessary to creating and fostering true democratic discourse. Habermas originally considered the public sphere as a product of the Enlightenment in 17th and 18th century Europe,[xiii] where newly recognized freedoms, including the more liberal use and acceptance of reason and logic combined with public forums like coffee shops and salons to provide citizens with a means to have a rational-critical debate. In order to communicate properly, citizens need to be free from any distraction which may distort the messages they are giving or receiving. Additionally, individuals require perhaps an unlimited amount of time and solitude for thinking privately and considering arguments heard. The slow pace of political decision-making and the processes of communication more generally in centuries past combined to provide the time and mental space necessary for the critical contemplation of discourse.

More recently, however, the public sphere has given way to competing interests from all directions:  businesses, politicians, and private organizations all vie for the limited attention (and dollars or votes) of an individual, in effect speeding up the entire process of communication and decision-making.[xiv] According to Habermas, the displacement of the public sphere transformed society and politics into a voyeuristic entertainment industry that is more concerned with creating surplus value than producing a nation of informed citizens.[xv]  This prevents the “process through which individuals discover themselves, learn about their preferences, engage in debate, and shape opinions of others.”[xvi] These changes have had a substantial effect on traditional political terms such as participation, debate, and what it means to have citizen obligations. The replacement of citizens with consumers has promoted the substitution of reasoned thinking with attention-grabbing spectacle. Well-intentioned or not, the substitution of commercial sound bites for what had previously been one-on-one communication has made what Habermas considers to be the ideal speech situation (one in which every person is able to participate fully, freely, and equally with complete understanding) nearly impossible to achieve.

Furthermore, the pressure for an increased spectacle in political communication is disruptive on a basic level to communicative competence. In other words, it discourages the true and uninterrupted communication of meaning from one individual to another by introducing added effects. The sights and sounds which grab the collective attention of the public also effectively break down interpersonal communication by confusing meaning in a web of show.  Successful communication, according to Habermas, must be intelligible, true speech which does not disguise its intentions and must be interpersonal.[xvii] Flashy campaigns can and often do remove every single one of these requirements.

Despite these potential roadblocks, Obama’s campaign rhetoric sought to resurrect a hope in the potential for democratic discourse. On the one hand, his message was clear and uncluttered:  Everything had to change, and the people must be included once more in the public sphere. According to Ceaser, Busch, and Pitney, this theme was key to his electoral success.[xviii]  To his credit, Obama had “managed, almost exclusively, to frame the race” on these terms.[xix]  Furthermore, he had the ability to “tap into the public’s desire for change, however defined, and to project himself as the kind of president who could deliver it” (emphasis added).[xx] The first step to creating this aura of change came from Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe, who noted that “our only hope of success depended on breaking free of the standard political paradigm.”[xxi] Everything came back to this central premise of “running a different kind of campaign” by instigating a “change in tone.” [xxii]

Obama’s redefinition of public politics called for a new standard of democratic discourse which would require “turn[ing] the page on old debates.”[xxiii]  The problem, according to Obama, was that politics were “consumed with the same drama and division and distraction” as they always had been.  Rather than dividing the people, Obama spoke of a mode of democratic communication which would enable the people to find “a way to come together”[xxiv] around “a campaign that has united Americans of all parties around a common purpose.”[xxv] In many ways it was a message the people had heard before, but spoken with just enough pizzazz to render the argument new and continuingly relevant.

Obama’s strategy for change during his campaign relied heavily on empowering both the people and his persona.  He spoke of what would be his heroic effort to “ be the President who finally brings Democrats and Republicans together.”[xxvi] A new kind of society would be necessary to support the post-partisanship he promised. It would be a community built on the same values of confidence and competence that framed Obama’s entire campaign. Interestingly, Obama’s most recognizable campaign slogan (“Yes we can”) wasn’t about him at all—it was about the people. The ability to transform politics rested on the people coming together to redefine their role in the democratic process. For Obama, this was the power of democracy; the ability to freely choose to break from the past and create a new way of doing things. Articulating this vision, he said, “We are the hope of the future; the answer to the cynics who tell us our house must stand divided; that we cannot come together; that we cannot remake this world as it should be.”[xxvii]

This remaking required a new public sphere that would be void of the traditional power players who sought to mobilize bias in order keep things off the agenda. According to Obama, the election was about more than just the issues du jure, it was “about whether we choose to play the game, or whether we choose to end it.”[xxviii] The only way to end the game of deceitful politics was to “reaffirm that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes us one people, and one nation.”[xxix] Democrats and Republicans could come together to find common ground. They just needed to rediscover the space and spirit to do so.

The discourse of inclusiveness enabled Obama to begin introducing a democratic space where people could come together to define issues. However, changing the players of the game was not the only piece to reconstituting the public sphere. Obama’s communitarian ethos also rested on the “politics of hope”[xxx] and the belief that “America can change” and embark on a “path to a more perfect union.”[xxxi] This requires changing the way political discussion is conducted in this country. Obama’s plan was to change all of that, to makeover politics as usual into a more democratic, straightforward, and effective system.

Interestingly, Obama himself stressed early on that “spectacle” was merely “fodder for the nightly news” and not an appropriate replacement for real politics.[xxxii] Condemning the use of race as spectacle in his own candidacy, he berated the tactic as a means to destroy the process and outcome of the public sphere. According to Obama, flashy politics only led to distraction and division, a new low for the democratic norm. “I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction,” he warned. “And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.”[xxxiii] The way out of the box is reasoned talk. Obama spoke of his candidacy as an opportunity to change political communication and focus on issues, reassuring the people that “at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.’”[xxxiv] Repeating this discursive snippet four times, Obama simultaneously rejected the politics of division and re-injected a Habermasian ideal into American political discourse.

The Public Sphere and the Spectacle

Through careful use of language, emphasis, and the production of hype, Obama’s campaign opened the door to a possibility of a new kind of public sphere. But his words and his actions told incongruent stories about what precisely the new and improved mode of political communication would look like. On the one hand, Obama’s arguments demonstrated his dedication to openness, fairness, and simplifying the dialogue between political leaders and their constituents. On the other, his showmanship bespoke a different method that relied upon the spectacular to get the attention of prospective voters. Of course, the two strategies need not be mutually exclusive; when carefully coordinated, a dazzling platform can spark attention at first, then fade into the background as the issues become the predominant rhetorical strategy.  Such a balance would be complicated, however, and in Obama’s case the spectacle threatened the integrity of the message. The conflict stems from the nature of the spectacle, which distorts communication in order to achieve a certain end, making it incompatible with the notion of an open and fully democratic public sphere. In Obama’s case, the authentic discourse he promoted could not emerge from a process that was promoted by the use of bright lights, loud music, sound bites, and hype. Intentionally or not, his hope of a new style of politics was directly challenged by his use of strategic action that was rooted in the old framework of politics that Obama sought to transcend.

By definition, the spectacle is a strategic screen designed to both create relationships and meaning. According to Debord it is a “social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”[xxxv] The spectacle is predicated on using symbols, language, and meaning to create artificial ties between people. It does this by appropriating a type of “instant communication” that “is essentially one-way.”[xxxvi] Contrary to Obama’s ideal, in the true spectacle there is no space to come together to define meaning jointly. Instead, it is designed specifically to bring together isolated individuals and show them a series of images that are “superior to the world.”[xxxvii] This allows the spectacle to become the “common language that bridges this division” between people and causes spectators become “linked only by a one-way relationship to the very center.”[xxxviii] In other words, it is the event rather than the issue that unites. What is disconcerting for Debord is how the spectacle has become the “chief product of present-day society.”[xxxix] Social, economic, and political relations rely on this device to establish hierarchical relations, which further diminish the capacity of discourse to bring people together in an authentic way. In fact, the spectacle is the “locus of illusion.”[xl]

Building from this analysis that the spectacle creates inauthentic political and social relations, Edelman adds a different understanding to the construct. He defines the spectacle as a “meaning machine.”[xli] It is “a generator of points of view and therefore of perceptions, anxieties, aspirations, and strategies.”[xlii] Presidential scholar Bruce Miroff also contends that the purpose of the spectacle is to “construct meanings for the American public.”[xliii] Although meaning is created in a highly contextual situation with multiple players, the spectacle is a construct used to understand how discourse becomes a means not to liberate citizens. Instead, the spectacle is created and employed by a host of entities including political leaders and the media to establish narratives that privilege a particular position. Political leaders use this tool to “present themselves as unique choice, offering something different from their rivals in style, personality, policies, empathy, or intelligence.”[xliv] This meaning machine serves to establish symbols, which then “become scripts for the actors and landmarks for observers.”[xlv]

Of course, the use of presidential spectacles in creating scripts and landmarks is not a new phenomenon. Obama is not the first to introduce a bit of sparkle to the campaign trail or the Oval Office. Throughout the past century, presidents have commonly used mass communications to engineer consent. For example, President William McKinley learned quickly after the attack on the U.S.S. Maine that the media could sensationalize issues to such an extent that it could dictate national policy. As a result, McKinley became successful in “directing public opinion” by direct connecting with the people through the media.[xlvi] President Theodore Roosevelt further refined this process through practicing and improving upon his own rhetorical gifts. He had the noted ability to twist and turn the facts into a story of his liking, causing  Rudyard Kipling to recall having “listened and wondered, until the universe seemed to be spinning round and Theodore was the spinner” when in his presence.[xlvii] Others also had this presidential taste for the spectacular. Miroff noted that “Kennedy reached the White House as a celebrity, with a heroic image more manufactured than earned.”[xlviii] Richard Nixon created a new standard for presidential appearances by constructing presidential stages on the campaign trail and at the White House.[xlix]   Brit Hume observed that Nixon “created the contemporary model for the event.”[l] Former actor Ronald Reagan also mastered the presidential spectacle. Miroff argued that “Reagan presented to his audience a multifaceted character, funny yet powerful, ordinary yet heroic, individual yet representative.”[li] More recently, Kellner pointed out that “Bill and Hillary Clinton projected more youthful, attractive, and energetic images than the Bushes.”[lii] The spectacle of the “Comeback Kid” continued throughout George H. W. Bush’s presidency as he seemed to thrive on the “spectacle of survival under constant adversity.”[liii] Seemingly then, in presidential politics, image is everything.

As in each of these carefully constructed narratives, the main outcome of using the spectacle to create movements and meaning is the creation of fetishes.[liv] Spectacles are designed to establish, enhance, and embellish a particular meaning within a given context. Adding importance to an event or person often leads to a fixation and a following. And this strategy frequently leads to success. Edeleman notes that “the political entities that are most influential upon public consciousness and action, then, are fetishes.”[lv] As a result, fetishes tend to “dominate and mystify their creators.”[lvi] However, embellished rhetoric tends to create conditions that are sometimes unrealistic and unobtainable. Therefore the spectacle serves as an unintended trap as it creates conditions that are supposed to inspire, put people in awe, and even depict “what society can deliver.”[lvii] However, the spectacle is merely designed to project an appearance, not reality. And in doing so, it creates false hope and transforms leaders into fetishes and people into spectators.  This setting is not compatible with ideal speech situations.

The Spectacle as Campaign Strategy

The presentation of the spectacle began early in Obama’s journey to become the next president. As he introduced his message about changing the political landscape, Obama was creating his own spectacle. One of his first moves was to ask for Secret Service protection. In fact, the Obamas received presidential protection earlier than any other candidate had done before. Michelle Obama saw this as symbolic, noting that “protection underscored the notion that ‘we are moving to the next level’ of the presidential campaign.”[lviii]  By requesting Secret Service protection, Obama projected an image of himself that was decidedly presidential. After his victory in Iowa, his security detail grew to such an extent that it rivaled “that of President Bush, with a dozen Secret Service agents wearing dark suits and earpieces leading bomb-sniffing dogs through event venues, sweeping all equipment brought by journalists and flanking the candidate as he plunges into crowds of supporters.”[lix] Reporter Mark Leibovich commented that receiving “Secret Service protection early in his campaign, […] has lent appreciably to his ‘Kind of a Big Deal’ aura.”[lx]  The glamour of the presidential spectacle that is created by mysterious agents in dark sunglasses attracts a particular image of what it means to be presidential. It was an image that did not go unnoticed by the media or prospective voters.

The mythic image created by Obama’s presidential spectacle really came to the forefront with his courtship of the Kennedy legacy and a series of notable endorsements which came in the early part of his campaign. Years before he declared his intent to run for the office of president, Ethel Kennedy had already compared him to her late-husband Bobby. Describing how there was just something about Obama, she explained (in 2005), “I think he feels it. He feels it just like Bobby did.”[lxi] Two years later it appeared that the Kennedy family was moving to not only endorse Obama’s campaign, but also to grant him the new title of prince of Camelot. Caroline Kennedy declared in the title of her op-ed piece to the New York Times on January 27, 2008 that he is a “President Like My Father.”[lxii] In that piece, she made the direction connection between Obama’s capacity for change and what her father represented. She said, “I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president — not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans.”[lxiii] Senator Ted Kennedy, two days later, would further the process of anointing Obama as his family’s heir. “I feel change in the air,”[lxiv] he said. “With Barack Obama, we will turn the page on the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion.”[lxv]

Obama’s connection with the Kennedy’s was not one-sided. In his 2007 Selma speech and the 2008 speech where he accepted Kennedy’s endorsement, he spoke of how the Kennedy family helped his father come to the United States. He noted that “it is partly because of their generosity that my father came to this country, and because he did, I stand before you today – inspired by America’s past, filled with hope for America’s future, and determined to do my part in writing our next great chapter.”[lxvi] Speaking of his particular strategy in framing this narrative, the Washington Post noted that “a casual listener to Obama’s Selma speech could come away with the impression that he is the offspring of a mythical union between the Kennedys and the civil rights movement.”[lxvii] Although the connection was tenuous at best, reporter Neely Tucker noted the importance of establishing the link between the mythical idealism of the Kennedy presidency and Obama’s own potential. He said, “We are never more than the myths we tell ourselves we are. Yesterday, the ideals of one of the nation’s most beloved presidents were handed down for a new generation. It should make for a good story.”[lxviii] This connection was the critical core for maintaining and expanding the spectacle surrounding Obama’s campaign. The story of a new king in Camelot’s court allowed Obama to project an ideal image: like Kennedy before him, he would be able to inspire and change the course of history with his persona.

The appearance of presidential grandeur coupled with the affirmation that he was a “New Kennedy” provided Obama with an enviable platform from which he could affirm his message of hope and change. But not everyone was taken with the spectacle that was being created through Obama, his followers, and the media. Senator Hillary Clinton sarcastically quipped, “Now I could stand up here and say, let’s get everybody together, let’s get unified, the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing. And everyone will know we should do the right thing, and the world will be perfect.”[lxix]

In addition to the image of pomp and circumstance from the secret service detail and the rhetorical affinity for JFK, the Obama campaign started to use endorsements as a vehicle to expand the spectacle. Notable among them was former Governor Bill Richardson’s endorsement in late March, which had been one of the “most coveted and tightly held endorsements in the race for the Democratic nomination.”[lxx] This simple affirmation not only provided Obama stronger ties with the Latino community, but it also continued to establish his mythical presence.  Richardson stated that Obama was “a once-in-a-lifetime leader” who could bring “this nation together.”[lxxi] Driving this message home was an unprecedented endorsement from perhaps one of the most influential and spectacular woman in America:  Oprah Winfrey.  In late May 2008, she announced her support for Obama on Larry King Live. Although she did not use her own show’s spectacle to issue the endorsement, she made it clear why she chose to break with precedent and officially back a politician. “I think that what he stands for, what he has proven that he can stand for, what he has shown was worth me going out on a limb for,” she said, “and I haven’t done it in the past because I haven’t felt that anybody, I didn’t know anybody well enough to be able to say, I believe in this person.”[lxxii]

Toward the end of the campaign, powerful backers of Obama came from both sides of party lines and offered confirmation of his claim that he was truly a different type of politician. One of his final and perhaps most important endorsements came from former Secretary of State Colin Powell in the middle of October 2008. Like the previous pledges of support, Powell’s recommendation served to heighten the spectacle surrounding Obama’s candidacy. It created a lot of hype and helped Obama to reach a new group of supporters who were moderate Republicans. Echoing what so many others had said before, Powell noted, “I think that Senator Obama brings a fresh set of eyes, a fresh set of ideas to the table. I think we need a generational change, and I think Senator Obama has captured the feelings of the young people of America and is reaching out in a more diverse, inclusive way across our society.”[lxxiii] Mark Halperin of Time Magazine commented on the impact of this particularly important endorsement, saying “It is most similar to Senator Edward Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama over Hillary Clinton in February, which garnered extraordinary news coverage at a critical moment and broke the spirit of the opposition.” This “extraordinary” attention came because, “ Like Kennedy, Powell is a larger-than-life figure who commands a wide following. Powell says he will not campaign actively for Obama, but he does not need to. His words on Sunday were more than enough.”[lxxiv] With each of these endorsements, the spectacle of meaning continued to build the idea that Obama could deliver on his promises by changing the very nature of American political discourse. However, the spectacle itself distorted Obama’s core message about creating a different type of America. The meaning of his candidacy began to revolve around the person of Obama, rather than his core message and dream of a democratic ideal speech community.

In constructing this iconic vision, Obama also needed to start building an image that reflected the majesty of the president. Hillary Clinton’s campaign advisor Mark Penn commented that the Obama campaign had “perfected the mass event,” which allowed them to project Obama as a “once-in-a-generation leader atop a national government.”[lxxv] Further supporting this self-created presidential image, Obama’s campaign introduced a modified version of the presidential seal on June 20, 2008. The seal retained its blue finish and the eagle clutching an olive branch and arrows. However, the traditional Latin phrase of “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of Many, One) was replaced with “Vero Possumus” (“Yes, We Can”). The seal was further modified by replacing the logo’s shield with the letter “O” for Obama. However, this particular attempt at appearing more presidential backfired, and forced the Obama campaign to immediately retire the seal. The presumption of acting too presidential lead John Broder of the New York Times to state the obvious, saying, “Then again, Mr. Obama is not the president.”[lxxvi] Jake Tapper from ABC News joked that there “no word on whether they played a remix of ‘Hail to the Chief’ as Obama walked in.”[lxxvii] Andrew Malcolm from the Los Angeles Times called it the “Great Seal,” while pointing out that “Obama’s crowd has decided not to wait for any of the formalities like a presidential election, an inauguration or even a nomination.”[lxxviii]

The myth of assuming the mantle of the presidency even before the democratic nomination process continued throughout the summer of 2008. The spectacle building process hit a highlight with Obama’s Middle Eastern and European tour. This five-country tour brought Obama to major international capitols. It was reported that Obama was “accompanied by 12 foreign policy advisers and a virtual army of men wearing earpieces that approaches presidential levels.”[lxxix] This image was only magnified with his choice of transportation as “he was ferried through the streets of Amman, Jordan, in a 20-car motorcade” (Leibovich 2008, July 28). The use of a Boeing 737 that “has been nicknamed O-Force One (Obama-‘08/President is stitched into the captain’s chair)” also created a certain buzz and hype about his candidacy and trip.[lxxx]  However, these features were just supporting elements. The spectacle would generate most of its energy from the crowd that Obama drew in his only public event in Berlin. Standing in the setting of Tiergarten Park and Victory Column, he spoke before 200,000 Germans who chanted his slogan “Yes, We Can.”  Robert Schlesinger commented that the “press loved it” and “the visuals, with the warm ‘glow of sunset’ were ‘powerful’ and ‘hard to beat.’”[lxxxi] Evoking the feel of a Reagan type of spectacle, Schlesinger noted that Obama had constructed “a well crafted—and television-dominating—political event.”[lxxxii]

The construction of stages to magnify and reflect the presence of Obama hit a high water mark at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. After it moved the convention from the Pepsi Center to Invesco Field, Obama’s campaign spent more than $6 million to set the stage to speak before 70,000 supporters and nearly 40 million viewers at home.  Appearing behind a columned background that critics labeled as a Greek temple, Obama conveyed his core message of change. He spoke to how he does not “fit the typical pedigree.”[lxxxiii]  Even though his candidacy was historic, he reminded the audience about the real source behind this movement. He said “What the nay-sayers don’t understand is that this election has never been about me. It’s been about you.”[lxxxiv] This Habermsian message rested on the assumption that the people through Obama could fundamentally change Washington. Because he had not spent his “career in the halls of Washington,” he could become an instrument of the people.[lxxxv] Real voices and authentic discourse could be brought back.

This message of empowerment, however, was projected through a means that relies on people to consume, not actively engage.  Referring to the scene that Obama’s team had created, Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC proclaimed, “The stagecraft was so phenomenal. I don’t know how they could have done it any better.”[lxxxvi] Balz and Johnson noted that it was the “latest example of an age of excess, of mass Super Bowl and rock concert extravaganzas.”[lxxxvii] William Safire derided the event, calling it a “political version of ‘American Idol’— the audacity of hype.”[lxxxviii] This event, above all, symbolized hubris.[lxxxix] Yet, this was one of the last grand spectacles Obama employed.  In the following weeks, Obama was heavily criticized for his summer of extravagance, which forced him to “pull back and curb his grandiloquence.”[xc] The financial crisis would further diminish the political use-value of relying on the spectacle. According to Ceaser et al., during this period “Superman slipped into a telephone booth, took off his cape, and came out as Clark Kent.”[xci]

Even though Obama relied less on grand events to win the election after the end of August, he brought it back on election night. Against the backdrop of the Chicago Skyline in Grant Park, Obama spoke before a crowd chanting “Yes, We Can.”  He asked the audience to join him “in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years.”[xcii] This new ethos required “a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other.”[xciii] He admitted that his “victory alone is not the change we seek – it is only the chance for us to make that change.”[xciv]

Conclusion

In many respects, Obama’s use of spectacle is a necessary component to contemporary politicking. Perhaps the commercial sound bites and images are needed to draw the attention of the masses of potential voters, those who might otherwise have excluded themselves from participating in the public sphere. In this way, his message is more far-reaching, and in its own way, perhaps even more accessible to the American public. Younger voters were encouraged by Obama’s message—and his method of conveying that message—to participate in a democratic process which otherwise may have not included them. The political advertising of Obama as a “product” for mass consumption created its own demand and brought a new demographic of participants with it. In this way, the spectacular methods used by the Obama campaign to convey his message could be viewed as an effort to broaden the scope of the public sphere by bringing it to the people where they already are (in front of televisions, for example) and how they like it (the “rock concert” mentality).

In this case, however, the medium truly is an important part of the message. How Obama speaks is as important as what he says. His overall rhetorical message (words, lights, and spectacle) presented a compelling vision of what politics could look like. Citizens must be informed, willing to deliberate, and consensually agree on what is best for the country. Not only is a stalwart citizenry possible, but an ethic couched in civic responsibility could emerged through a presidential campaign process. By employing communitarian language that reflected the basic premises of Habermas’s ideal speech situation, Obama was able to galvanize public support with an optimistic message predicated on the fact that people and politicians could come together to rationally discuss issues. He spoke of the necessity of removing the power brokers from political discussion, encouraged transparency by having open negotiations, demanded accountability, introduced the ethic of progress to democratic discourse, and created a spectacular hope for the future of democratic discourse.

Ironically, however, his message may have been undermined by the very spectacle which was its medium. The success of Obama’s campaign, built on seemingly incongruous values of reason and spectacle, offers an opportunity to revisit Habermasian theory in a twenty-first century setting. The spectacle of a contemporary political campaign may be understood as a hindrance to democratic discourse. Its flashy rhetoric can function as a distraction to the “best argument” or provide a substitute for any argument at all. The event is supposed to evoke feelings of awe and authority in order to inspire and elevate.  It brings people together through blinding images and deafening noise, catchy phrases rather than meaningful discussion. Even though it creates relations through these images, the spectacle does not form a community. It is still based on hierarchical relations that dictate meaning. In this sense, the hope of a public sphere was distorted by a rhetorical method rooted in the politics of the past.

 

Notes

[i] Mark Murray, “‘Rock Star’ Obama in the land of Lincoln.” NBC News, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17086451/from/ET/

[ii] Barrack Obama,” Obama’s Announcement for President” BarrackObama.com, http://www.barackobama.com/2007/02/10/remarks_of_senator_barack_obam_11.php.

[iii] Mark Murray, “‘Rock Star’ Obama in the land of Lincoln.” NBC News, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17086451/from/ET/

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, trans. T. McCarthy (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1975).

[viii] Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991).

[ix] Jürgen Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society, trans. T. McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979), 189.

[x] Mark E Warren. “Can Participatory Democracy Produce Better Selves? Psychological Dimensions of Habermas’ Discursive Model of Democracy.” Political Psychology 14.2 (1993), 211.

[xi] M. Cooke, Language and Reason: A Study in Habermas’s Pragmatics, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994).

[xii] Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987), 294, 315.

[xiii] Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991).

[xiv] Agger, Ben, Fast Capitalism:  A Critical Theory of Significance, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989).

[xv] Jürgen Habermas, Toward a Rational Society, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979).

[xvi] James A. Caporaso and David P. Levine, Theories of Political Economy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 155.

[xvii] Jürgen Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society, trans. T. McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979), 189.

[xviii] James W. Ceaser, Andrew E. Busch, and John J. Pitney, Epic Journey, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC., 2009).

[xix] Ibid. p. 15

[xx] Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson, The Battle for America 2008, (New York: Viking, 2009), 220.

[xxi] David Plouffe, The Audacity to Win, (New York: Viking, 2009), 69.

[xxii] Ibid, p. 69.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Barack Obama, Turn the Page, ObamaSpeeches.com, http://obamaspeeches.com/120-Obama-Turn-The-Page-Speech-California-Deomcratic-Convention.htm.

[xxv] Barack Obama, Super Tuesday, ObamaSpeeches.com, http://obamaspeeches.com/E02-Barack-Obama-Super-Tuesday-Chicago-IL-February-5-2008.htm.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Barack Obama, Potomac Primary Night, ObamaSpeeches.com,http://obamaspeeches.com/E03-Barack-Obama-Potomac-Primary-Night-Madison-WI-February-12-2008.htm.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 12.

[xxxvi] Ibid, p. 19.

[xxxvii] Ibid, 19.

[xxxviii] Ibid, p. 22.

[xxxix] Ibid, p. 12.

[xl] Ibid, p. 12.

[xli] Murray Edelman, Constructing the Political Spectacle, (Chicago The University of Chicago Press, 1988), 10.

[xlii] Ibid, p. 10.

[xliii] Bruce Miroff, “The Presidential Spectacle,” in The Presidency and the Political System, ed. M. Nelson, (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2009), 260.

[xliv] Murray Edelman, Constructing the Political Spectacle, (Chicago The University of Chicago Press, 1988), 49.

[xlv] Ibid, p. 49.

[xlvi] Robert C. Hilderbrand, Power and the People, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1981), 22.

[xlvii] William Roscoe Thayer, The Life and Letters of John Hay, Volume II, (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company,1916), 333.

[xlviii] Bruce Miroff, Icons of Democracy: American Leaders As Heroes, Aristocrats, Dissenters, and Democrats, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 274.

[xlix] Martha Joynt Kumar, Managing the President’s Message: The White House Communications Operation, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).

[l] Ibid, p. 121.

[li] Bruce Miroff, “The Presidential Spectacle,” in The Presidency and the Political System, ed. M. Nelson, (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2009), 261.

[lii] Douglas Kellner, Media Spectacle, (New York: Routledge, 2003), 170.

[liii]Ibid, p. 171.

[liv] Murray Edelman, Constructing the Political Spectacle, (Chicago The University of Chicago Press, 1988).

[lv] Ibid, p. 11.

[lvi] Ibid, p. 11.

[lvii] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 20.

[lviii] Jeff Zeleny, “Secret Service Guards Obama, Taking Unusually Early Step,” The New York Times, May 4, 2007.

[lix] Ibid.

[lx] Mark Leibovich, “Mr. President? Not Quite, But Quite Presidential,” The New York Times, July 28, 2008.

[lxi] Jeff Zeleny and Carl Hulse, 2008, “Kennedy Chooses Obama, Spurning Plea by Clintons,” The New York Times, January 28, 2008.

[lxii] Caroline Kennedy, “A President Like My Father,” The New York Times, January 27, 2008.

[lxiii] Ibid.

[lxiv] Sam Graham-Felsen, Obama Rally, BarackObama.com, http://my.barackobama.com/page/community/post/samgrahamfelsen/CGVRs.

[lxv] Ibid.

[lxvi] Ibid.

[lxvii] Michael Dobbs, “The Fact Checker: Obamas’s ‘Camelot Connection’,” Washington Post, March 31 2008, http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fact-checker/2008/03/obamas_camelot_connection.html.

[lxviii] Neely Tucker, “Barack Obama, Camelot’s New Knight,” Washington Post, January 29 2008.

[lxix] Julie Bosman, “Clinton Turn From Anger to Sarcasm,” The New York Times, February 24 2008.

[lxx] AP, “Richardson endorses Obama,” Associated Press, March 21, 2008.

[lxxi] Ibid.

[lxxii] Jeff Zeleny, 2007, “Oprah Endorses Obama,” The New York Times, May 3, 2007.

[lxxiii] Mark Halperin, “How the Powell Endorsement Boosts Obama,” Time, October 19, 2008.

[lxxiv] Ibid.

[lxxv] Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson, The Battle for America 2008, (New York: Viking, 2009), 222.

[lxxvi] John Broder, “The Great Seal of Obamaland?,” The New York Times, June 20, 2008.

[lxxvii] Jake Tapper, “The Audacity of Hype,” ABC News, June 20, 2008.

[lxxviii] Malcolm Andrew, “Barack Obama gets his own nifty Great Seal,” Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2008.

[lxxix] Mark Leibovich, “Mr. President? Not Quite, But Quite Presidential,” The New York Times, July 28, 2008.

[lxxx] Ibid.

[lxxxi] Robert Schlesinger,“Barack Obama’s Berlin Speech,” U.S. News & World Report, July 25, 2010.

[lxxxii] Ibid.

[lxxxiii] Barack Obama, The American Promise, BarackObama.com, http://obamaspeeches.com/E10-Barack-Obama-The-American-Promise-Acceptance-Speech-at-the-Democratic-Convention-Mile-High-Stadium–Denver-Colorado-August-28-2008.htm.

[lxxxiv] Ibid.

[lxxxv] Ibid.

[lxxxvi] Brian Stelter and Jim Rutenberg,  “Obama’s Speech Is a TV Hit, With Viewers and Commentators Alike,” The New York Times, August 29, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/30/us/politics/30ratings.html

[lxxxvii] Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson, The Battle for America 2008, (New York: Viking, 2009), 332.

[lxxxviii] William Safire, 2008, August 31. The Audacity of Hype. The New York Times, August 31, 2008.

[lxxxix] Ibid.

[xc] James W. Ceaser, Andrew E. Busch, and John J. Pitney, Epic Journey, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC., 2009), 20.

[xci] Ibid, p. 20.

[xcii] Barack Obama, Election Night Victory Speech, ObamaSpeeches.com, http://obamaspeeches.com/E11-Barack-Obama-Election-Night-Victory-Speech-Grant-Park-Illinois-November-4-2008.htm.

[xciii] Ibid.

[xciv] Ibid.

 

This article was originally published with the same title in Political Rhetoric and Leadership in Democracy (Cedar City, UT: Southern Utah University Press, 2011).

Chad and Lynita Newswander

Written by

Chad Newswander is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Lynita Newswander is a Lecturer of Political Science at the University of South Dakota. Both have published numerous articles in public administration, religion and politics, and political theory.