In Obama we hope

Obama has become hope personified. He may have successfully rebranded the United States. But do not expect radical change: this hope is religious in its overtones.
Richard Marsden
23 October 2009

Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for capturing the world's attention and giving its people ‘hope for a better future.' There is humour here. Bush punished those deemed guilty of bad intentions, i.e., those who may harm the United States. Obama is rewarded for good intentions, i.e., for what virtuous deeds he may accomplish.

The emotion of hope points to another connection between them. Obama, like Bush, is a vehicle of emotional marketing or branding. The product is the same - Brand America - only the emotions used to sell it differ.

Richard Marsden is an Associate Professor at Canada's open university, the Centre for Integrated Studies at Athabasca University, Alberta.

Author of The Nature of Capital: Marx after Foucault, (Routledge 1999), he is now writing a book on The Business of EmotionWith Bush, it was fear. With Obama, it is hope. They have more in common than meets the eye. Both emotions concern unknown, future events. Fear entails a belief that the undesired situation (terrorist attacks on the U.S.) is probable. Hope entails a belief that the desired situation - whatever it might be - is probable. They are emotional twins. No hope without fear. No fear without hope. They are opposing imagined futures. All that changes is the balance between them. Bush and Obama are Janus-faces of the United States. Having frightened us half to death, now America wants us to be hopeful.

How does this rebranding work?

Emotional marketing works by permeating the thing to be sold with an emotional persona, woven from verbal and visual stories that simulate those emotions most likely to induce consumers to buy. As one interacts with the brand, one participates in the story, absorbing the brand's emotions. Emotional marketing works with just about anything that can be taken to market, from pickup trucks to iPods. It also works with politicians, especially U.S. Presidents and their wars.

The Anglo-American war against Iraq was sold to the American public using these same emotional marketing techniques. The Bush Administration waited until the fall of 2002 to begin the drumbeats of war, because the summer is not a good time to roll out a ‘new product' (Andrew Card, September 2002).

Republicans and Democrats, it is often said, target two different body organs, the heart and the head. Republicans have known for decades that it is the heart, not the head, which makes voting decisions. It took Democrats a while to realize that they can win the argument and yet lose the election. Obama's ‘hope' proved the ideal emotion to succeed Bush's fear.

One attraction of hope to Americans is its religious overtones. It is one of the three Christian virtues, along with faith and charity. Obama's speeches are actually sermons. For the past four years, a graduate of the Society of Jesus, Jon Favreau, has crafted them with him. These speeches or sermons weave together the new Brand America.

It is widely believed that Obama is a fine orator, but this is false. Orators think through speaking, improvising upon the briefest of notes, as their thoughts and feelings interact with their audience. Malcolm X was an orator. George Galloway is an orator, as was Michael Foot. Obama is undoubtedly a man of many fine qualities, but he is no orator.

In itself, this is hardly a criticism. Good orators can be bad politicians, just as good politicians can bad orators. In this context, the point to note about oratory is that it is a test of the speaker's authenticity. The audience has a basis for distinguishing between truth and lies, realities from appearance, deception from sincerity. You cannot fake oratory. Words and feelings must resonate. If they don't, the performance falls flat.

Obama reads speeches, crafted with Jon Favreau, projected on to a pair of transparent teleprompters which stand between him and his audience. His attention moves from one to the other as he speaks. Their transparency is intended to give the impression that Obama is thinking on his feet and to conceal that he is reading from a script. His reliance on teleprompters has become somewhat of a joke, even among his supporters. If he can avoid it, he will not utter a public word without them. And without them, as a public speaker, he is quite ordinary.

Obama simulates oratory. As Baudrillard might put it, simulation is a reality in its own right, one that muddies the distinction between true and false, authentic and imaginary. What is true of the form is true of the content. Simulated oration facilitates this rebranding, for it makes it difficult to ask, what is authentic and what is imaginary? The ‘product' - the ‘new, improved' United States - is scripted to the letter, tirelessly rehearsed, and tailored to the expectations and prejudices of the target audience, whether it is in Berlin, Cairo or Pittsburgh.

The central emotion in this rebranding of the United States, this hope, warrants scrutiny. It is not such a noble emotion.

Other recent articles on Barack Obama on openDemocracy:

"Barack Obama's great test" (30 September 2009)

"Barack Obama's world" (16 July 2009)
First, to hope is to expect to be delivered of something one wants, but does not have. The less we have, the greater the capacity to hope. This is why lotteries are popular with the poor. There is little ‘hopeful' about hope; it is a symptom of deprivation. The worse things get, the more we cling to hope. Things must be grim indeed for Obama to be awarded a Nobel prize for giving the ‘world's people', no less, ‘hope for a better future'.

Second, hope entails pleasant feelings of optimism about the future and these make it easier for us to cope with our own hardship today. We can more readily suffer now if we think we are going to reap the benefit later. Obama's speeches about hope make his followers feel good. They enjoy the hoped for event in advance. It's the ideal emotion for Americans, as their country implodes.

Third, hope about what exactly? ‘Hope for a better future' is broad enough to encompass everything from getting away with robbing a bank to finding a cure for cancer. A multitude of ill-defined, and probably conflicting, hopes centre on Obama. His attraction is that he is hope personified. He is the ‘blessed one', a bestower of hope. Hope was once a benediction given by God; now President Obama gives it.

Fourth, Obama regards the Nobel Prize as a ‘call to action'. Whose action? Do not expect much from his followers, for hope is an opiate. It encourages deference, passivity, and political inaction. Only in this sense is hope peaceful and Obama's Nobel prize well-deserved.

Hope might be more congenial company than fear, but they are equally useless guides to action. To hope is to gamble on deliverance in the future. It is the perfect complement to America's casino capitalism.

We need to see things with equanimity, as they actually are, not how we, or others, would like them to be. Look to what the United States is and does, not just what its president says. Two corporate political parties take it in turns governing and call it change. The Obama presidency re-brands this merger of corporate and State power and calls it ‘change you can believe in'.

The quality of his person and the sincerity of his intentions are not paramount. Obama is not the captain of a sailboat plotting a new course and direction. He is the president of heavily militarised corporate State in deep crisis-and States are causal powers unto themselves. His room for manoeuvre is limited.

Obama is the marketing face of this rebranded American State. His moral sermons distract attention from the immorality of much of what the United States does, to its own people and anyone who fails to bend a knee in submission. Between their lines is the same old America-the-virtuous, with the responsibility for imposing its goodness on the rest of the world.

The future lasts a long time. As Bush discovered, fear does not. As Obama will discover, nor does hope.

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