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Naomi Klein: How Corporate Branding Took Over the White House

Ten years after the publication of "No Logo", Klein looks at how Obama created a brand that won him the Presidency. Will his failure to live up to his lofty brand cost him?

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Another way of putting it is that Obama played the anti-war, anti-Wall Street party crasher to his grassroots base, which imagined itself leading an insurgency against the two-party monopoly through dogged organization and donations gathered from lemonade stands and loose change found in the crevices of the couch. Meanwhile, he took more money from Wall Street than any other presidential candidate, swallowed the Democratic party establishment in one gulp after defeating Hillary Clinton, then pursued "bipartisanship" with crazed Republicans once in the White House.

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Does Obama's failure to live up to his lofty brand cost him? It didn't at first. An international study by Pew's Global Attitudes Project, conducted five months after he took office, asked people whether they were confident Obama would "do the right thing in world affairs". Even though there was already plenty of evidence that Obama was continuing many of Bush's core international policies (albeit with a far less arrogant style), the vast majority said they approved of Obama - in Jordan and Egypt, a fourfold increase from the Bush era. In Europe the change in attitude could give you whiplash: Obama had the confidence of 91% of French respondents and 86% of Britons - compared with 13% and 16% respectively under Bush. The poll was proof that "Obama's presidency essentially erased the battering the US's image took during eight years of the Bush administration," according to USA Today . Axelrod put it like this: "What has happened is that anti-­Americanism isn't cool anymore."

That was certainly true, and had very real consequences. Obama's election and the world's corresponding love affair with his rebranded America came at a crucial time. In the two months before the election, the financial crisis rocking world markets was being rightly blamed not just on the contagion of Wall Street's bad bets but on the entire economic model of deregulation and privatization that had been preached from US-dominated institutions such as the IMF and the WTO. If the United States were led by someone who didn't happen to be a global superstar, US prestige would have continued to plummet and the rage at the economic model at the heart of the global meltdown would likely have turned into sustained demands for new rules to rein in (and seriously tax) speculative finance.

Those rules were supposed to have been on the agenda when G20 leaders met at the height of the economic crisis in London in April 2009. Instead, the press focused on excited sightings of the fashionable Obama couple, while world leaders agreed to revive the ailing IMF - a chief culprit in this mess - with up to a trillion dollars in new financing. In short, Obama didn't just rebrand America, he resuscitated the neoliberal economic project when it was at death's door. No one but Obama, wrongly perceived as a new FDR, could have pulled it off.

Yet rereading  No Logo  after 10 years provides many reminders that success in branding can be fleeting, and that nothing is more fleeting than the quality of being cool. Many of the superbrands and branded celebrities that looked untouchable not so long ago have either faded or are in deep crisis today. The Obama brand could well suffer a similar fate. Of course many people supported Obama for straightforward strategic reasons: they rightly wanted the Republicans out and he was the best candidate. But what will happen when the throngs of Obama faithful realise that they gave their hearts not to a movement that shared their deepest values but to a devoutly corporatist political party, one that puts the profits of drug companies before the need for affordable health care, and Wall Street's addiction to financial bubbles before the needs of millions of people whose homes and jobs could have been saved with a better bailout?

 
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