No one who decided to go to bed or just switched the channel sometime before the end of a spectacularly boring Oscars show last night should be blamed. But if you did, you missed more than the identity of the winners of the major awards. In a night full of not particularly funny jokes or entertaining production numbers, and winners that most of the movie pundits predicted, the biggest surprise came when First Lady Michelle Obama appeared live from the White House to help Jack Nicholson present the Best Picture Award that capped the evening. Mrs. Obama is as graceful, attractive and well dressed as most of the film stars present at the ceremony. But the decision to include her at its conclusion illustrated a salient fact about the advantages her husband has been given and why the laws of political gravity do not seem to apply to him.
In the last year I have often written about how conservatives have underestimated President Obama’s political appeal as well as the kid glove treatment he gets from the media. The full explanation of his ability to escape the sort of critical scrutiny his recent predecessors have received is multifaceted, but I believe the most important aspect of this phenomenon is what I call the “Camelot” factor. The Obamas are the beneficiaries of a media whose liberal bias is beyond doubt. They also have a skillful staff that is ruthlessly manipulative and takes full advantage of social media and creative tactics. But mere bias and smart tactics don’t fully explain it. No president or presidential family has been treated by the mainstream media with the sort of deference if not reverential awe the Obamas get since John F. Kennedy and his beautiful wife were in the White House.
It almost goes without saying that it is impossible to imagine any other recent First Lady being invited to present the Best Picture Oscar. Mrs. Obama’s many fans will argue that she is the most stylish and perhaps attractive of recent presidential wives, and perhaps they have a case to make in that regard. But you don’t have to be a conservative or a Republican to realize that with the Obamas the already obvious political preferences of the arts world–and the film industry in particular–have crossed a new boundary.
While all presidents, including some of the most revered like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, have always been subjected to abuse in the political arena, popular culture had always tended to treat presidents with deference. But ever since Kennedy, that salute-the-flag way of looking at our political leaders has gone out the window. Since then all denizens of the White House have been subjected to the same cynical and sarcastic treatment accorded everybody else in contemporary American culture. Though liberals were certainly treated better than conservatives, they were not exempt. Not, that is, until Barack and Michelle Obama.
President Obama’s historic status as our first African-American president grants him the sort of edge that no other contemporary politician or any of his successors can ever hope to acquire. But the strength of his position is not just a function of a lapdog liberal media that is so easily led around by the nose by White House flacks. The Obamas are not just the leading figures in our politics; they are treated by popular culture as the uncrowned king and queen of America.
In parliamentary political systems the duties of head of state and head of government are separated. In the United States they are combined, but in the last half-century presidents have not been able to step out of their politician role in the way that their predecessors might once have done. Not so the Obamas, who are subjected to less mockery and more courtesy than even the queen of Great Britain is given in her own realm.
Part of this is seen in the way the first lady and the Obama children are held exempt from the sort of nasty criticism that has been the normal fare of every presidential family since Jacqueline Kennedy, Caroline and John-John were the darlings of the press. The children of even liberal presidents such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were the butts of jokes–but not the Obama kids.
But the ability of the Obamas to preside over American culture like apolitical monarchs while simultaneously taking part in some of the most bitter, partisan and demagogic political warfare against their opponents gives the president an enormous advantage in everything he does, whether it is conducting a re-election campaign or bullying Congress to raise taxes.
Prior to the Oscars, it was understood that politics had torpedoed the chances of the superior “Zero Dark Thirty” from winning the top award. But Mrs. Obama’s presence in the ceremony told us more about the intersection of culture and politics than even that travesty.
Republicans have spent much of the last few months since their defeat at the hands of President Obama engaged in an orgy of introspection and recrimination. A good deal of that is justified. But as much as they need to rethink their approach to some issues, as well as their messaging, they would be foolish to think that their losses in 2008 and 2012 are unconnected to their bad fortune in being matched up against a Camelot presidency.