The extent to which public perceptions of Barack Obama are influenced by race is, I think, wildly exaggerated, but I do not think it is a complete non-factor. I got to thinking about this when the White House trolled the Internet just before the State of the Union speech with a picture of that tan suit, to which some people objected while others adopted the hashtag #YesWeTan! People who follow that sort of thing began to wonder whether the president would in fact show up for the State of the Union in a casual khaki suit, the same one that some people had objected to his wearing at a press conference.
That was never going to happen. Obama may dress like a Midwestern Chamber of Commerce president — those conservative Hart Schaffner Marx suits and all — but he does in fact know what to wear when. A tan suit is perfectly suitable for a daytime event in Washington in the summer. He wasn’t about to wear one in January for as formal an occasion as the State of the Union address.
Obama used to wear a pretty nice TAG Heuer watch — not a flashy timepiece, but one from a range that typically costs a couple thousand bucks. Since he’s been president, he has usually worn a much more modest $500 Jorg Gray chronograph, a gift from his Secret Service detail. (If you’d like to know everything that is known about every watch worn by an American president, then this is the obsessive for you.) That’s part of a relatively new tradition of presidential horological modesty. Bill Clinton, who is something of a watch fiend (owner of a customized Rolex, a Jaeger-LeCoultre, an Audemars Piguet, a Dubuis, and more), infamously wore a digital sports watch for most of his presidency. He doesn’t do that anymore, because he doesn’t have to pretend to be a man of the people. George W. Bush mostly wore a $40 Timex.
I have to imagine that the people who get exercised about the Obamas’ taste for high-end vacation destinations would probably have a hissy fit if this president rocked a flashy gold Rolex of the sort preferred by such kings of bling as Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, or even a steel Rolex, as was Ronald Reagan’s habit. (LBJ also owned a Patek Philippe, prices for which run well into the six figures today and were proportionally no less expensive in his time.) Some of that would probably be racial, as a gold Rolex surely activates certain stereotypes about flashy black men. Some of it would be an understandable distaste for enduring lectures on inequality from a guy with fairly expensive tastes. Some would have to do with our weird modern cult of the presidency, in which we treat him like a god-emperor responsible for everything from the fortunes of our farmers to the price of gasoline while simultaneously demanding that he keep up certain rigorously democratic appearances — like he’s just a regular guy who likes to drink Bud and chow down on a (Swiss, Senator Kerry?) cheese steak. Sure, travel like a pharaoh when you head to Camp David — but don’t you dare wear an expensive watch.
In 2008, I argued that Mitt Romney should get in touch with his inner rich guy, and that we as a nation should stop being so silly about the fact that the sort of people who are in a position to run for president are likely also to have been financially successful in life. Barack Obama strikes me as the kind of man who is incapable of not pretending to be the sort of man he pretends to be, but I hope he gets in touch with his inner rich guy, too. He’s a different kind of rich than Romney (who is a wildly successful private-equity investor), being instead a guy who has made most of his millions — there are about seven of them — as a writer. So, probably not a Patek Philippe. But he does like to play the professor: Maybe some really nice bespoke tweeds? And he could take the TAG out of the drawer, too.
Mitt Romney’s $200 wristwatch is well below his means, but it may give us a clue about his belief in his own power to make a political comeback.
It’s a Nixon.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.