President Obama’s appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman was a brilliant performance for many reasons. The most obvious was the simple and direct way he related his goals and how he hoped to achieve them, casually bringing the whole country into his inner circle. Less obvious was how he closed the loop, connecting politics and entertainment in a way that we usually like to deny. That’s where the future of the Obama administration starts to look far more interesting than just a series of policy choices and potential accomplishments.
The big laugh-line was when he was asked early on whether Pres. Carter was correct to say that much of the criticism leveled at him was based on racism. Obama told us, “I was actually black before the election,” and proceeded to make an appeal to his mandate to show we’re all above this now. It was as daring as it was funny, but it shows how serious Obama is at perfecting the mythology and archetype of an Electoral Leader. An excellent study of this type of leadership is defined by Garry Wills in Certain Trumpets as personified by FDR and his Fireside Chats:
Roosevelt’s seated-in-the-room-with-you style gave a shock of intimacy. This was a new thing in people’s relation to their president. … People felt that Roosevelt, unlike his predecessors, was confiding in them, consulting them.
This type of leader is defined by his or her followers, which is to say ultimately by their connection with the people they lead. FDR, for example, would often suddenly change direction to meet public opinion even as he worked to shape it. Obama has yet to make any significant reversals but has indeed backed off from calls for single payer health care. Like FDR, he’s there to lead people, not yell at them. To do this, he has to be a different type of president for a different generation.
As he spelled out his goals carefully, it became clear that Obama is going to keep his eyes on the prize and act strategically to solve problems. But doing this on a show billed as entertainment put to lie the label of “politics” that is put on what is clearly nothing more than pure entertainment as talking heads and more than a few bloggers struggle to advance their own careers over the public good.
There are only a few useful definitions of “politics”. The first is that it is the operating system of government, the hashing out of policy. The second is that it is the art and science of human interaction, or how we use it in the phrases “Office politics” or “Domestic politics”. I would add that politics is about improving people lives, not power or influence (to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt).
By any of these standards, people zinging each other for a temporary advantage in an obscure game are not engaging in politics, but nothing more than entertainment. Most of what passes for “politics” is, in fact, irrelevant as any kind of policy or method for people to interact in any kind of constructive way. It certainly doesn’t improve people’s lives.
If what passes for politics is actually a cheap form of entertainment, for real politics we have to turn to entertainment shows. I’ve said for years that the only nooze show worth watching is the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. To see Letterman give Obama the time on platform to actually talk about how he will lead completes the circle. Only the lead-in by the band and the heart shaped potato made it look like entertainment, not politics.
Like FDR before him, Obama has a tough task. He is tackling it by appealing to a style of leadership that requires a constant reassuring dialogue, a connection to the people of the nation. It’s how we get past the learned helplessness that has been fed by the perception that politics is some kind of inside game played by professionals who have the right connections. Once we realize that they are nothing more than entertainment we have a shot at engaging the great numbers of people who have given up.
It’s actually easy. All we have to do is have actual politics, the real deal, on our entertainment shows. That, and ignore the noise.