Our Celebrity President

This past Christmas, I visited America’s newest tropical tourist destination: the birthplace of President-elect Barack Obama. This fact eludes neither the proud locals nor the curious tourists. Everywhere I went, vendors of gift shops had saturated their shelves with t-shirts plastered with the Shepard Fairey’s now ubiquitous pop-art repainting of Hawaii’s most famous hometown boy. Fanatical tour guides on sightseeing buses pointed out his vacation home in Kailua. Tourists and natives alike flocked to his local haunts in hopes of catching a glimpse of or a picture with this larger-than-life figure. Of course the president-elect is always going to famous–he or she has been just been elected president. But Obama’s celebrity is different. It was there before we elected him, even though he was a first-term senator. His celebrity was even used against him in the campaign. I couldn’t help but wonder–how much of Obama’s “fame” that swept our nation’s youth off its feet this election and how much of it was his political potential? Had Obama become so popular merely by being popular? Did it give him an unfair advantage over his political opponents? Or is it an appropriate recognition of his undeniable political capacity? Despite what ideas you may have of the after-effects of his fame, you cannot deny that teenagers have never before claimed their stake in the political process as they did this year, whether by wearing pop-art t-shirts, logging on to myBO or producing homemade campaign ads for YouTube. Youth turnout this year was at its highest since 1972, which may very well might have been the tide-changing factor for Obama. Obama’s celebrity status is reminiscent of that of another American president. With his youth, charisma and a remarkable ability to ignite hope in the American people, it is no wonder that Obama has earned comparisons to John F. Kennedy. But the similarity does not end there. In their day, the JFK and Jackie Kennedy O’Nassis were different than any other first couple the country had seen. They were young and hip, with an air of glamour to them that placed them in the ranks of movie stars and pop moguls. The first lady, beyond being a figure of grace, remains an America style icon. Her husband was no less popular with the media nor the American people. Fast forward four decades and a noticeable similarity unfolds. Beyond appearing on t-shirts, our president-elect is probably the only prominent public figure who has had full-page spreads and cover stories in such diverse publications as The Economist and US Weekly alike. During his holiday retreat to Hawaii, photos snapped of his shirtless figure bodysurfing on a private beach made national headlines. Clearly, Obama has reached a level of public interest into his personal life seen only before in Hollywood. And by flipping through any tabloid or celebrity gossip magazine, one can see that our soon-to-be First Lady Michelle Obama has been much saluted for her tastefully chic ensembles. (Her dress for Election Night set internet gossip ablaze with its disregard to the First Lady uniform of pantsuits and pastels.) Clearly, the Obamas are not an ordinary presidential family. Barack, and everything he touches, it seems, is iconic. Despite the glitter and glamour, celebrity comes with negative side effects. According to MSNBC, Obama has been featured on the cover of Newsweek 12 times, which, considering Newsweek has had 49 issues this year, is about a quarter of the year’s covers. Senator John McCain, on the other hand, was featured only four times and twice he shared it with another person. Biased or not, the media coverage of Obama during his campaign was miles ahead of that of his opponent. Perhaps the election results would have turned out differently if the general public could have gotten a fairer look at all the presidential candidates. But how could voters have gained an honest understanding of candidates when their policies were overshadowed by a deceptive veil of publicity and image marketing? We may know or have read Obama’s bestselling book Dreams of My Father, but do we know his exact plan detailing US troop withdrawal from Iraq, which is scheduled to happen by 2011? We may know every detail of his personal life, from his brief childhood hiatus in Indonesia to the age he was when his father died, but do we know how his voting record in Senate matches up with his public convictions? It is hard to be aware of the things that matter when those are not the things we see in the media. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” John F. Kennedy famously said in his inaugural address. The year was 1961 and our country was on the verge of the threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but Kennedy’s words lifted the nation’s spirits. Now it is 2009 and the country teeters on the edge of an economic downfall. Situations worsen abroad in the Middle East and climate change threatens the very well being of life on Earth. We have yet to find out if Obama is really ready and capable of handling these many issues facing our world at large, but he’s already proven himself capable of completing a monumental task that has befuddled almost all others before him, and that is getting the attention of us: the American youth. And though those teenagers sporting the cool Obama shirts might not know who the members of his administration will be or his exact stance on healthcare, they were getting out there and voting for the first time for something that gives them faith in the system, and that is a feat in itself. Michelle Ma is a two-year Lower from Walnut, Calif.