News & Politics

What Does the Prez Stand for? You Are Going to Be Shocked When You Learn the Name of Obama's Favorite CEO

"Change you can believe in." "We must pledge once more to walk into the future." "Help me take back America." Obama is a savvy sloganeer -- but what's behind his brand?
When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces. The man who’d introduced them didn’t much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.
–”A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life,” from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

During his now-infamous Oval Office interview with Bloomberg, Obama named FedEx CEO Frederick Smith as one of his favorite business executives. Smith is an unlikely choice to say the least. He raised more than $100,000 for the McCain campaign and was co-chair of his finance committee. He is also “fiendishly anti-union,” in the words of Doug Henwood; he has been engaged in a long-running battle with the labor movement over allowing the company’s workers to unionize. Unions were key allies of Obama during his presidential campaign.

Similar to the characters David Foster Wallace depicts in the above story, the president is exceedingly anxious to be liked by the rich and powerful and to “preserve good relations” within his class, at almost any cost. As a result, it is next to impossible to discern what he stands for. This is the presidency of “One never knew, now did one now did one now did one” — in which orienting substance is lost in an unending quest for future cordiality.

This was, of course, signaled by the Obama campaign, with its ubiquitous placards of Change, Hope, and Yes We Can -- that swirl of promise, with no firm pledge. To reveal any core principles that cohered with that messaging would, perhaps, offend the sensibilities some potential monied allies. Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, has observed that the campaign's marketing strategy captured the hearts of voters with the images and words of past progressive movements, but that it was, in fact, devoid of any core principles or demands. In crafting an ad campaign as cool as Nike's, Obama had similarly appealed to emotion without communicating anything of substance.

If Obama actually owned the labor-friendly agenda that is attributed to him -- rather than merely acting the part -- he would have found it hard to speak so highly of Mr. Smith. This year, FedEx fought labor reform and EFCA with the most expensive lobbying effort in its history by far, spending $17 million -- almost double its 2008 total, and five times its 2006 total. FedEx's business model is premised on extremely low labor costs, which it maintains by classifying its employees as independent contractors. Labor costs account for nearly two-thirds of unionized rival UPS's operating expenses, as opposed to just over a third for FedEx.

To keep matters easygoing and polite, perhaps, Obama and Smith discussed energy.

In the same Bloomberg interview in which he praised Smith, Obama said of Wall Street CEOs Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon that he "knows both those guys" and that they were "savvy," despite the economic devastation their banks had wrought, at taxpayer expense. Both CEOs are actively fighting the financial reform agenda that is typically ascribed to Obama. Does he seem to care? Not really. What is his agenda?

Does he merely with to ingratiate himself with the wealthy and powerful? The Businessweek article ends with a "witticism" aimed at Mr. Smith, with the president obviously "hoping to be liked" by both the CEO and the press corps that would carry this message to him. He is clearly quite good at this game --at our peril, and at the peril of any meaningful agenda.

No Logo and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men were both published at the height of the Clinton-era bubble, and both wrestled with the torments of that particular era. The cultural, psychological, and economic realities they depict seem to explain the Obama presidency even more than the major events of the last decade -- 9/11, Iraq & Afghanistan, the massive housing bubble gone bust. Obama and his team certainly seem to want to revive the Clinton years and forget the intervening decade, and naturally so: they made their political and financial fortunes when Clinton was in the Oval Office. Now, as Klein writes, they're just applying those corporate strategies, developed over a decade ago, to America's politics.

FedEx's award-winning logo is a product of the nineties, as well. Its subliminal arrow points both forward and backward, depending on which side of the truck you see. Many people don't see it at all (it's between the E and the x).

The story of the logo's design also suggests that Smith and Obama have more in common than you might think. Here is the designer on how he sold Smith on the logo (and changing the company's visual name from Federal Express to FedEx):

"Well, in selling an identity into a company it always comes down to the CEO. Fred Smith is a marketing genius and understands the vital role of design in brand building. A smart, intuitive man."

Obama is a marketing genius. We like him, we do. But what does he stand for?

Kevin Connor is the co-founder of LittleSis.org, an involuntary facebook for powerful people. He is also the co-director of the Public Accountability Initiative.
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