“After 4 Years of a Celebrity President,” is Romney the Anti-Celebrity Candidate?

Curator's Note

Last April, Super PAC American Crossroads revived the McCain campaign’s anti-celebrity attack ad with their own negative ad. Intending to polarize the electorate by differentiating Romney and Obama with regard to serious politics and popular culture, these ads illustrate the contradictions of celebrity and political culture in the contemporary moment. Take a look.

Both ads pejoratively frame Obama as a byproduct of Hollywood hype, while the current ad also mocks celebrity’s pleasure-inducing incitement to discover the “real” behind the image. Obama’s access to the center of media spectacle is not only misplaced, but also misrecognized. In the McCain campaign ad, the “real Obama,” is not what his charismatic image purports. Extending this theme, the new ad reveals a more complicated depiction of Obama’s celebrity, one in which his “cool” personal style is constructed visually in a pop montage of famous media moments laid over a mash-up of talk show/interview sound bites, Obama’s singing homage to Al Green, and the cult-like, ritual chanting of fans who make up this rock star’s crowd. The second ad shows how Obama, like the entertainment celebrity, works a persona that is both extraordinary and ordinary at the same time. His larger-than life image is the object of mass adulation, which wins him access to more intimate venues within the popular public sphere where he can strategically project his persona in order to appear personable, accessible, and even cool.

Such campaign personalization strategies are not new or unique to Obama. Increasingly, political campaigns situate their candidates to appear on pop TV formats, where candidates purposefully adopt the conventions of the format, chatting, joking, bantering, or even dancing with the host. The point is to suggest that they are not only popular but ordinary too and not socially removed from the people. Candidates perform to show us ostensibly who they really are. The cunningness of this new ad is in exposing the mechanism of celebrity’s reproduction (inadvertently) by insinuating that Obama’s real self is just more Hollywood hype, clearly unsuitable for the Presidency of the United States. The irony is that Romney is unlikely to bypass the “late-night” campaign stop. McCain certainly didn’t, and Romney has already done a cameo (albeit awkwardly) for Letterman’s “Top Ten List.” Besides, what better way to avoid serious political questions from journalists than to camouflage propaganda into hip and harmless entertainment?


Hi Sue! Thank you for a great post. I think it raises interesting points about how politicians frame and manipulate the identity of opponents for political gain. My question for you is: how do you think this framing of Obama as a "celebrity" may serve as a foil to the traditionally Republican framing of the common man, outdoorsy-cowboy identity? It appears to me that one of Romney's biggest challenges is to overcome the celebrity of Obama, but he lacks the common-man appeal of the Bush or Perry cowboy type. Perhaps because of his clean-cut, rigid appearance and financial wealth, I wonder if the labelling of Obama as a celebrity only opens the door for inquiry into why Romney cannot be the "anti-celebrity".

Thank you for your post and for taking the time to address my comment. I look forward to your response!


I think the second ad backfires in precisely the way you suggest. Obama’s coolness also indicates that he can manage his image in ways that appeal to more than one part of the electorate, in this case, the youth vote. If the American Crossroads ad is a continuation on the theme of the McCain campaign ad, then we are supposed to believe that Romney is not challenged by Obama’s celebrity, an attribute that is beneath him (Romney). I am suggesting that although Romney will rely on spectacle as all political leaders must, he will also be compelled to “perform” himself as ordinary, which doesn’t necessarily mean cool or folksy, but in some way that strikes the public as authentic. If he wants a shot at the undecided “late-night” vote, he’ll need to appear on these soft media televisual formats. In fact, it would be quite conspicuous for Romney not to appear on The Daily Show or SNL, for example, since it has become routine for candidates to demonstrate that they have a sense of humor or that they can poke fun at themselves. But, because he lacks the “common-man appeal” as you suggest, we might expect that he will not be particularly good at these kinds of campaign stops.

Bringing up the issue of celebrity as a flashpoint in recent political campaigns is really smart, because the notion of the celebrity strikes at the very balance that the popular conception of the modern US president is built upon-a person (as you both suggest) who is connected to the common folk (or at least able to empathize with them, we suppose) and yet is exceptional and capable of being their leader. Your discussion makes us wonder if utilizing Obama’s celebrity as a vector of attack will converge with the Right’s continued efforts to characterize him as a Socialist.  We're somewhat surprised that, as of yet, we haven’t encountered SuperPAC or Romney campaign ads linking Obama to the kind of personality cult linked to historically anti-democratic leaders like Stalin, Mao, etc. This is, after all, the company Obama is made to keep when those attacking his platforms use the "S" word and spin tales about rights, "death panels," and so on. Still, the contrast between the two presidential contenders in mainstream media narratives often seems predicated on the "celebrity" factor-Obama has it and Romney clearly lacks it-while not seeming to link this characterization to that of Obama’s supposed power to manipulate and control the masses. It seems to lend itself so well to Rightist criticism, and yet that hasn’t transpired on any substantive level. You’re absolutely right to suggest that thus far efforts to paint Obama as a celebrity little interested in issues have fallen flat in the face of Romney’s seeming inability to replicate even a modicum of the ordinary/extraordinary balance. Furthermore, Romney’s refusal to articulate any specific plan on any substantive issue at this stage in the campaign hasn’t given the issue-orientation charge any weight.  We have a hard time believing such critics are withholding such rhetoric for fear of polarizing voters, but we cannot believe that such an opportunity to link Obama to a poisonous lineage of political personalities would elude those individuals and organizations.  Why, then, are such connections not seeping into mainstream political discourse?  Are they simply more covert?

You make a really interesting point. I don’t think the Romney campaign would produce such an ad or ads, but I wouldn’t rule it out for a Super PAC, which could not be held accountable for an over-the-top analogy like the formal campaign could be. It’s one thing to liken Obama to Paris Hilton and quite another to liken him to Stalin or Mao. And, it’s one thing for Romney to do it and another for undisclosed donors to a 501(c), from which Romney can disavow himself after any damage has been done. The stakes for these two types of ads are rather different, though, and this might give pause to Republican strategists. The critique on the “real” of the celebrity extraordinary/ordinary paradox is a fairly benign attack strategy relative to an ad along the lines you raise, which I don’t think could be done covertly to have the intentions you describe concerning the Right’s agenda to paint Obama as a Socialist. If such an ad were to materialize, it would reiterate Obama’s cult-like status as a pseudo-leader and eliminate the critique of his celebrity à la Hollywood. Such an ad would significantly raise the negative attack meter, since it would supplant the supposed nonsense of Obama’s claim to the presidency with a fear-mongering assault intended to provoke obvious associations to tragic historical precedent. I suspect such an ad would get a lot more press/pundit attention, but it would not be a critique about celebrity anymore, if what we mean by celebrity has to do with a person upon whom media attention is bestowed and framed in terms of an illusion and exposure of the person’s supposed real-self. Now, an ad likening Obama to Chávez, well…that’s a different story…

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