The Power of the Entertainer-in-Chief

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by Dr. Kathryn Cramer Brownell 
Author of Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life.

“Every American likes to be entertained… So if you can’t fight it, PUT ON A SHOW. And if you put on a good show, Mr. and Mrs. America will turn out to see it,” wrote the California political consultants Clem Whitaker and Leon Baxter in 1934.  Rooted in California politics in the 1930s, this practice reverberates today and continues to shapes the modern American presidency.  On December 8th, President Barack Obama appeared as a guest on the Colbert Report.  Taking over for the comedian as the host of the show, Obama changed the segment “The Word” to “The Decree.” His comedic performance highlighted both his humor and acting talents. In a strategy reflective of his decision to appear on Zach Galifianakis’ Between Two Ferns to promote the Affordable Care Act, and to rap the news with Jimmy Fallon to advocate for his student loan policies, Obama again showed his ability to flourish in his role as “Entertainer-in-Chief.” 

Like many of his predecessors in the White House, Obama has turned to a “showbiz politics.”  Following an electoral defeat for the Democratic Party last month, Obama’s entertainment efforts have helped him to reclaim the media narrative of his presidency and re-invigorate the activism of his younger supporters, whose voices he needs to push his policies through a Republican Congress over the next two years.    

Though a defining feature of Obama’s presidency, showbiz politics has deeper roots. It’s a product of changes in American politics over the past eighty years as presidents slowly, and frequently controversially, turned to Hollywood personalities for insights on how to approach new technology and communicate to an expanding electorate.  In 1934, Whitaker and Baxter joined studio executives Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner to use publicity tools from the motion picture industry to propel Frank Merriman to a gubernatorial victory over the Socialist Upton Sinclair.  However, shock broke out across the nation because the campaign looked so much like a motion picture production. 

Over the next decade, Franklin Roosevelt’s critics blasted him for using Hollywood entertainment to manipulate voters.  They warned of the danger of mixing “politics and glamor.”  During the 1950s, as Dwight Eisenhower welcomed an actor, Robert Montgomery, to the White House as his television advisor, reporters looked uneasily at the “Hollywood element” that threatened to undermine presidential politics. 

During the 1960 election, the little known senator from Massachusetts, John Kennedy, took a risk as he waged a specific type of primary campaign, which hinged on media innovation rooted in his and his father’s experience in Hollywood.  He deployed a political version of the “Hollywood dream machine” to create “Jack Kennedy fans” that would convince a reluctant Democratic Party that his celebrity status could win electoral votes.  In 1960, his opponent, Richard Nixon, critiqued the senator’s use of “cheap publicity.” But, when Nixon revamped his campaign team to gear up for the 1968 election, Nixon emulated Kennedy’s strategy and deployed showbiz politics, which he believed had helped Kennedy win eight years earlier.

Since the 1960s, presidents have turned to entertainment to gain political power. Obama is no different.  Through two successful electoral campaigns, he has used lessons learned from the Hollywood star system to generate excitement and enthusiasm about his candidacy.  He has used celebrities to reach out to young and Latino voters on the campaign trail and to help him raise much needed funds for the Democratic Party.  This week, Obama became an entertainer not to win an election, but to govern.  In an appearance designed to rally youth support for policies, from minimum wage, to healthcare to the environment, Obama’s Colbert Report stint appealed to viewers who prefer the blatant entertainment on the Comedy Channel over the coded entertainment of FOX News.

Perhaps appearances like these will even give him an advantage in political negotiations over the next two year.  The Democratic Party suffered a humbling defeat on Election Day last month.  Obama’s cameo on The Colbert Report and the popular response of younger viewers to it, however, shows the president has the drive and the performative skills to potentially bypass a Republican Congress, and stir younger voters to side with him on hot button issues like immigration and the Keystone Pipeline.  While Republican critics remain fixated on accusing the president of abusing his executive authority with his recent executive order on immigration, Obama has already started to retaliate with one of his most powerful media tools that he has used time and time again to generate enthusiasm, cultivate support, and encourage political engagement: entertainment.   

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The Power of the Entertainer-in-Chief

Updated