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Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Power of Images

Seven weeks in to his presidency, Barack Obama has made a few mistakes. Declaring a spending bill with 8000 earmarks had none, nominating tax cheats to top level positions in his administration, and giving the Prime Minister of the UK a gift of25 Classic Hollywood Movies on DVD (about $20 at Wal-Mart). The Prime Minister had given him a pen box made of wood from a British anti-slavery ship. Oops, someone's people didn't get in contact with someone else's people.

Like any politician, our new President will have an assortment of gaffes during his presidency. God knows President Bush had his share, from his mispronunciation of words to his strange ad-lib phrases (the OBGYN one being the strangest of all) to the few times his lost his stage direction. These things happen to every president and every president has been demonized, in part, based upon the perceived image people have of them. I think presidents should be evaluated upon their actions and inactions, not their sound bite or looped news clip played over and over in comedy shows or YouTube, but one cannot ignore the great impact a president's public image has upon how people view and ultimately respond to a president and his policies.

With Presidents Reagan and George Walker Bush, it became the staple of the opposition to declare and portray these two as unintelligent, crass cowboys looking to start fights wherever they went: President Reagen because if his Hollywood background and President Bush because of his Texas background. Of course, the point of these portrayals was to make the presidents look bad in the eyes of people who already have bad views of cowboys and other such rugged individualist icons. The people pushing such views were usually, but not exclusively, city-based politicians, cosmopolitan writers and journalists, city-based peace activists and various other members of society who believe in a softer (dare I say, feminine) form of president. It was President Reagan's ever-stalwart belief in confronting the USSR with both military, covert and economic means that put fear into the Left that he may trigger a nuclear war with his “cowboy” antics. It was (and still is) President Bush's belief that we must preempt any immediate and dangerous existential threat since 9/11 proved that simple deterrence and legal hand-wringing could not protect us from people who care not for our walls or our laws. Bush's “dead or alive” comments, his liberal use of the word “evildoers” and the tough-guy talk like “bring it on” when commenting on the insurgents seemed abhorrent to the anti-rugged left. They could not abide by a president who did not have the airs of sophistication or articulation. They attempted, and in many cases succeed, in sinking Bush's popularity with smears against his intelligence.

President Obama has, for now, garnered a image of inexperience on the diplomatic front. After winning the election, Obama made a dozen or so calls to allied world leaders. One leader he missed was the leader of India[1]. Being a the world's most populous democracy, a nuclear power, a major trade partner and an close ally in Far East, I would think it deserved a phone call by the newly elected leader of the world's only superpower. The next big flub came only a few weeks ago with the returning of a British present: the bust of Winston Churchill [2]. The UK gave us the priceless gift after 9/11 and told us it was on loan as long as we wanted it. President Bush kept the bust in the Oval Office for his entire presidency as a reminder of resolve in the face of adversity. Obama decided he didn't want it. It wasn't exactly our President calling the Prime Minister a “limey bastard” or anything like that, but to conservatives and probably to a segment of the British population, it was a slight against the most loved British leader in the past 100 years. Coupled with his newest gaffe, Obama seems to have not grasped (or does not care for) the importance of symbolism in international politics.

Symbols are in every aspect of our lives. Our alphabet is just a collective of symbols we've imbued with meaning (in this case, sounds associated with speech). Numbers are symbols we associate measure amounts with. Flags, statutes, signs, animals, choreographed bill signings, military marches, and so on; they all are part of the unavoidable symbolic world we live in. Nations and international relations play heavily upon symbolic gestures. When our president goes to a conference in Asia, all the dignitaries are dressed in the local clothing. When our president meets with leaders of a religious group, he does his best to accommodate their customs. When we meet allies, we do our best to make them feel like friends. These gestures are very important in keeping the public image of a nation sanguine with the population of the country they are trying to court.

Yet, what cannot be forgotten is a nation's ability to project symbolic resolve and collective will. President Bush's impromptu speech at Ground Zero a few days after 9/11 in which he declared that “the whole world can hear you [the FDNY]” and that those who attacked us would “hear all of us soon” was an amazing symbol of American resolve and American vengeance against those who would kill our citizens. NATO's invocation of Article 5, which states that any attack on a NATO member is an attack on every NATO member, was a symbol of the Europe's friendship with the US. After 9/11, these acts, among others (like Congress singing God Bless America) worked to shore up the American citizenry's morale and have them believe their government would take swift justice to those who wronged us (even if behind the scenes there was infighting and confusion on what exactly to do).

President Obama's early gaffes, while minor and not affecting our foreign relations in any major way, are a bad omen when our president's major campaign promises was to “repair” our relations across the world. The President's supporters are claiming he's doing that, but I don't really see it. I watched him basically apologize to the Muslim world for George W. Bush and our wars of defense and liberation on Arab television in his first major interview as president.[3] That interview was quite symbolic. The positive or negative of it depends on who you ask. Secretary of State Clinton has been to China and to a meeting of NATO delegates. In her meeting with China, she publicly begged the Chinese to continue buying US bonds, something that doesn't make the US look all that sturdy economically (which affects our stock market).[4] With NATO, her (ironically) symbolic gift to the Russian delegate had the wrong translation of the word “reset”, as in reset the bad relations we've had with them. Instead, it said “overload” in Russian.[5] D'oh!

As I said before, these gaffes are minor, but they do leave a foul taste in the mouth of any American concerned with this nation creating a strong and leading image abroad. Our President wanted to mend ties with a world that didn't like us so much due to the image of our previous president. Unless Mr. Obama is purposely trying to make the United States out to be clumsy and addled-minded when it comes to other nations (as the Left accused the previous administration countless times), he needs to step up his focus on what exactly he and our diplomats are saying. We cannot afford any of these small mistakes to become a major row.

Out of all the things Mr. Obama promised during his run, the one thing I could agree with without any reservation is the mending of ties and the creation of new allies. This is one campaign promise I hope he keeps.


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