I wrote yesterday partly about cults of personality, with relation to some of Vladimir Putin’s recent shenanigans. I thought no more of it until I saw this tweet from President Obama’s Twitter feed:
This gushing quote led to this article from the Obama-Biden campaign website, in which a firefighter known only as “Jim” gushes about his excitement at winning a competition to have dinner with the president, and about how “normal” a guy Obama is. Some exerpts:
After walking to the restaurant, says Jim, “There was a lot of excitement. I felt like we were in the middle of the universe. Think about it: You’re in this restaurant, and you know nobody is coming in, you’re not going anywhere, there’s a lot of protection, and it’s for one guy who’s coming to have a meal with you. It’s a wild feeling. Our nerves were still kicking in—but I kept telling everyone, ‘It’s a good nervous.’ I wasn’t so much worried about what I would say to him, because I’ve watched him over the last few months and I knew deep down inside he was going to be a normal guy.”
“But then, he caught me off guard because he started asking me about being a firefighter! I wanted to know so much about him, but he was such a normal guy who just wanted to have a conversation. He turned to me and said, ‘You’re a firefighter, right? How long have you known you wanted to do that?’ I told him I have a picture of me as a little boy wanting to be a firefighter, and he said ‘Oh, so you’re one of those guys!’ He wanted to know all kinds of things, like how many fires I go into, how many guys do we have at your station, and I thought ‘Here’s the President of the United States, and he’s asking me about my job—this is just so cool.’ He really wanted to know!”
And finally this:
“Thankfully, he was exactly the way I imagined he would be. Like I said, I’ve been watching him, and he just seems so normal, and that’s exactly what he was. I wish I could have sat there for four hours and talked to him—he was just a good guy, normal. You’d never guess you were sitting there with the President.”
I’m pretty sure that he isn’t that normal (average Joe doesn’t typically ascend to the highest office in the land) and that I would guess that I was sitting there with the president if I had been in Jim’s place.
Now maybe I got out of bed on the wrong side today, and I certainly don’t want to pour any scorn on Jim the Firefighter’s evident joy and excitement to have met the president, I think that it is a wonderful thing. But given the fact that political opponents and a lot of more-or-less impartial observers tend to recoil a little at Obama’s tendency to make things about himself, about his taking credit where credit should perhaps be shared, his frequent use of the word “I” in speeches and so on, I’m wondering how wise it is to set up a competition to have dinner with the president, and then publish glowing testimonials from the winners in which they reveal how spellbound they were by his brilliance and normal guy charm.
So is this just a harmless way of re-enthusing the base about Obama’s likeability (given the fact that few people other than committed supporters are likely to see it), or is it part of a faux-pas which plays into a Republican narrative about the president’s ego and supposed cult of personality? I’m not quite sure myself, but if I were Obama’s campaign manager I might look to tone down this particular avenue of promotion. Neither he or Romney are ever likely to be seen as the guy you want to have a beer with (and a good thing too – I would want the leader of the most powerful country in the world to perhaps be a bit too busy and intelligent to want to entertain me over a pint), and I see little point in trying to change perceptions on this front.
Not that it is anywhere near as bad as similar online efforts in less fortunate countries, such as Vladimir Putin’s website for children, discussed in this old article from BBC News online:
On this new website, you can visit Mr Putin’s office – there you’ll find a virtual Vladimir sitting with his back to you – click the cup of tea on his desk, and he’ll answer some important questions.
No, not things like “Does democracy in Russia have a future?” or “When will the conflict in Chechnya finally end?”
Questions like these:
“Are you allowed to touch the President with your hands?” The answer – “no”.
Or “Who’s more important, the President or your mother?” Answer – “your mother”.
And “What should you do if you love the president too much?” Answer – “just calm down.”
Mind you, for those Russian schoolchildren who may already love their president a little “too much”, this site is bound to be a hit.
I think the “Come Dine With Obama” promotion is a little tacky, and that it will ultimately be a futile attempt to make the president seem more in touch with the common man, but at least it’s not like this Kremlin scheme, much as some on the right would like us to believe that Obama is attempting to recreate Soviet Russia in Washington DC.
On a lighter note, I was also reminded of this rather more humorous riff on the same subject from The Onion, this time about former president George W. Bush.