News & Politics

'Let’s Stay Together' -- Can Obama’s Charm Offensive Woo Back Disgruntled Progressives?

How do we reconcile our need to hold the president accountable with our reaction to this renewed charm offensive?

US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama shake hands with guests during the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s 33rd Annual Awards Gala at the Washington Convention Center. Obama has laid into Republicans over taxes and immigration, seeking to capitalize on a rare ray of hope for his Democrats ahead of crunch mid-term elections.
Photo Credit: AFP - Tim Sloan

Progressives were furious at Barack Obama a few weeks ago. Between his signing of the National Defense Authorization Act and the horrible decision to overrule the FDA on emergency contraception availability, added to his pursuit of the “war on terror” using methods as questionably legal as Dick Cheney's, it felt like the last vestiges of hope and change from 2008 had finally burned out.

But on the internet these past few weeks, the disappointing President Obama ceded the spotlight once more to the beguiling Candidate Obama, reminding some of his former supporters how utterly entranced we were by the man we pulled the lever for three long years ago--and leading us to wonder how much it matters now.
 
The Man Vs. The Politician
 
To put this dichotomy another way, there's the political Obama who seems, maddeningly, to value compromise itself over what compromise actually achieves--who doesn’t come out swinging. And then there’s the cultural Obama, who is, like, totally swinging: comfortable being himself and also one of us. He's clever, attuned to social currents, a little bit dorky, accessible, with an image we love to see, admire and joke about -- and most importantly who refuses to be cowed by the racist tenor of attacks he receives. In his cultural existence, he can blend an attitude that's above the fray with that refusal to bow to his critics. It's a balance he has yet to achieve politically.
 
Before I dissect this duality, it's important to note that some liberals have been loyal to the president despite his betrayals and disappointments (and been dubbed Obama-bots), while others remain furious at President Obama for some of his more disastrous policy decisions -- and will be unmoved by his reemergence into the cultural space. There's also been a robust debate about the racial elementof progressive disappointment at the President.
 
But I'm referring here to a broad swath of us who to some degree are in both categories -- who despair over the politician and delight in the man, who do sympathize with his position politically while still feeling he's failed to lead at key moments. How much will his personality, as it's showcased during election season, be able to reel that group back in?
 
Despite brilliant efforts from his campaign to begin that wooing -- selling his voice singing Al Green as a ringtone, or hawking a “birth certificate” mug poking fun at the birthers -- the rise of Occupy Wall Street indicates this: for many young Obama supporters, his first term demonstrated the utter failure of the political system at large, its inability to be transformed by one leader. Our journey has parallels to his own political journey, moving from a politician who truly believed in the concept of hand across the aisle to a politician, it seems, who has realized that in Washington, you need to fight.

Obama Rules The Internet
 
So in embracing "change we can believe in" perhaps we, the supporters, were as naive as he was. Still, Candidate Obama's reemergence reminds us there are some things that a leader can transform. So let's return to the Obama who has dominated the internet this past week with new viral memes starring his best self. Each one offers us insight into his appeal to progressives, even the most fed-up ones.
 
First, there’s the photo of him giving a fistbump to a maintenance man in a White House hallway, which I keep seeing on Facebook. Can you imagine Mitt Romney, or even notoriously germophobic George W. Bush having such a natural “man of the people” touch?
 
It's even become its own LOLCat:

political pictures - I got a fistbump from Obama  Your argument is invalid
see more Political Pictures

Another meme was born when people began to eagerly circulate the YouTube video of President Obama singing--on key--the tough opening bar of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at a fundraiser at the Apollo Theater, with Al Green himself watching approvingly from the sidelines. It soon became a ringtone and garnered millions of views.
 
 
 
How symbolic that choice of tune is. One of the most memorably catchy and plaintive songs of its era, it's about a lover bemoaning the need of other couples to break up, pleading for longevity in his own relationship, perhaps even wooing his estranged partner back. Sound familiar? Sitting in our kitchen this past weekend, my spouse and I both confessed that we felt like the president was singing right to us, asking us for a second chance, asking us to stay together through 2016. 
 
Hilarious, yes, and clever. But these Internet sensations aren’t just measures of how au courant our President is or how great his singing voice is. Rather, they're about a certain defiance he maintains against the vitriol coming his way. The fistbump and the Al Green, after all, are affirmations of Obama’s unflinching identification with black culture -- as well as a broader pop culture that is diverse and frankly, pleasurable. He’s our first hip-hop loving president, after all. He's the political version of a style icon: a trendsetter. A celebrity.
 
Culturally Defiant
 
The president's personal choices to have Jay-Z on his mp3 player and a fistbump at the ready, therefore, are important. They  fly in the face of the increasingly racially-loaded attacks he’s been receiving from his opponents: accusations of being a “food stamp president” and a “Saul Alinksy radical.”
 
Because Obama has actually governed as a complete moderate, maybe even a conservative, these insane charges just don't stick in terms of policy. Instead, the accusations coming from the Right are aimed at very same personality that delights many progressives: proudly African American, urban, intellectual, and hip.
 
Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are desperately vying to reclaim a starched-shirt version of White America from the black president some voters still can’t believe we elected. So by singing Al Green, by having "date night" with Michelle, by inviting the hip-hop artist Common to the White House, or by hosting a Tim Burton-influenced Halloween party in the White House, Obama is quietly but firmly giving the kiss-off to those who hate him for these reasons.
 
Which brings us to our third viral meme: A photo that was circulating widely on Facebook depicting a fake, doctored Washington Post front page, juxtaposing a laughing President Obama with the headline of Newt Gingrich’s victory in the South Carolina primary. Even though the image was false, the message was clear, to use the language of another meme: look at how many fucks Obama gives about you, Newt. Zero.  
 

 
 
This picture is a fantasy, though because the political Obama is more likely to take his GOP colleagues seriously than to laugh at them -- and maybe he feels he has no other choice. Certainly he would face a major backlash if he really did treat his opponents with the scorn they deserve, while they get a free pass for their dogwhistles at him. The point is, this image of Obama--simultaneously mocking his opponents  (literally) while also defying their treatment of him, being both above the fray and in it, is only achievable in the cultural space, not the political one. You can't be above the fray in Washington.
 
We've Always Liked Him

 
The fact is, many progressives never stopped liking Obama as a figure, and we’ve loved his wife and family fiercely all the way through his term. We're also sympathetic to the unique position he's in as the recipient of ugly, outsized and racially tinged attacks. So when he isn’t kowtowing to completely insane Republicans or sending drones into Pakistan, leaving innocents dead, when he isn't doing things that make us bang our heads against the wall, Obama remains a likeable guy. He has been all along--and the feeling that there’s a badass, smart, brilliant person who has it in him to raise the middle finger to his critics makes his failures more frustrating. Where was that guy during the debt ceiling debacle? Where was he when the NDAA came to his desk? 
 
So as we move forward into campaign season, the question is how to reconcile our need to continually hold the president accountable with our reaction to this renewed charm offensive. And if we are indeed charmed and at least want to see him re-elected, how to avoid falling into Obama-bot mode, defending him against legitimate and important charges from the Left?
 
The answer is that we can hold multiple ideas at the same time. We can like the man and many of his policy accomplishments, while deploring his policies of empire and political entanglement with the one-percent. We can believe he was hamstrung by a ridiculous Congress and subject to baseless racist attacks while also feeling he hasn't done enough to boost progressive ideas and policies. We can support his reelection while remaining convinced that such an event won't be nearly enough to set the country on the right track--and that policies like detention without trial, corporate welfare, income inequality, stalemate on women's rights, a lack of urgency on the environment, and a creeping police state will continue unless we ourselves combat them with actions more drastic than the ballot.
 
Perhaps most importantly, we have to continue to push President Obama to live up to the ideals of his campaign persona -- not the post-partisan one, but the tough and idealistic one -- even in the face of an obstructionist, personally vindictive opposition, and to be as confident and uncompromising in his political identity as he appears to be in his personal one. 

 

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Follow her on Twitter at sarahmseltzer.com.