Obama and Angelina
A few thoughts on Obama’s true brand, celebrity


Elise Jordan

The fairy tale of Barack Obama’s hope-and-change brand may not have crashed as quickly as the Dow plummeted a week ago, but as with the financial crisis, the warning signs have been there all along. “Too big to fail” is the catchphrase of the financial recession. The opposite is true of Obama. The media, the Democratic establishment, and his other supporters had done so much to artificially inflate Brand Obama that he never had a chance to live up to the hype, despite the best efforts of his supporters to keep his image polished. Obama’s brand was too big to succeed — the product was never going to taste as good as the slick advertisements had led everyone to believe.

When Obama hit the national scene, he was young, dynamic, and fresh. He moved through the paces during his short Senate career, visiting war zones with congressional delegations and asking seemingly intelligent questions at various hearings, but never sponsoring any notable legislation. (He did manage to net a million-dollar book deal before he entered the Senate, adding a second memoir to his canon.) During the 2008 primaries, he was praised for his speeches and proceeded to trounce veteran Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. Voters chose Obama’s mystery over Hillary’s baggage. More important, perhaps, than his evolution from community organizer to president was his journey from man to brand, from unknown to celebrity.

Obama’s celebrity allowed him to serve as the spokesperson for his own brand, a very Hollywood thing to do. It actually reminded me of another powerful manufactured persona, now ever present on the world stage: Angelina Jolie. Obama, I started thinking, was to American politics what Angelina Jolie was to the international-aid community — a feel-good picture, attractive, and somewhat inscrutable. At the beginning of Angelina’s humanitarian adventures, news outlets ran adulatory articles claiming she didn’t use a publicist, signaling that she was “real” and “committed.” She was a beautiful, exciting movie star, who drew a lot of public attention for her causes. A good thing, right?

Angelina’s views mattered so much that she met with high-level officials at the State Department after a trip to Baghdad, and she has been accepted for membership of the Council on Foreign Relations. What had she done to burnish her foreign-policy credentials besides go on VIP tours of hotspots? What valuable insight had she offered the world? Well, it didn’t really matter — she looked fantastic in a headscarf, and the mainstream media were more than happy to play along with the wild child–turned–international do-gooder narrative.

John McCain was ridiculed when he tried to get the celebrity tag to stick by comparing Obama with Paris Hilton. It didn’t work, perhaps because it was the wrong celebrity. Obama is not a reality-TV star — he’s classic old Hollywood.

Celebrity is not without expectations. To her credit, Angelina has donated generously to various worthy causes. But here, Angelina has it a bit easier than the president. The praise she received in the corridors of power aided her brand reinvention, but the only products expected of her were a few more good movies. It was enough just to be a star. For Obama, the sky-high expectations that catapulted him into office included actual results. He hasn’t delivered them, which is the problem. Brand Obama has taken a serious hit. It no longer makes people feel very good. All that’s left is the celebrity shell.

We don’t condemn Angelina for posing for Louis Vuitton in a Third World country, because that’s what we expect of celebrities. But we expect more of a president. Obama has been hoping for three years to use his celebrity to sell change that hasn’t happened. 

— Elise Jordan is a New York€’based writer and commentator. She served as a director for communications in the National Security Council in 2008 and 2009 and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.