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The Performance of PoliticsObama's Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power$

Jeffrey C. Alexander

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780199744466

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199744466.001.0001

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(p.267) Epilogue
The Performance of Politics


Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Just before midnight on the evening of election day, November 4, 2008, in Chicago's Grant Park, Barack Obama acknowledged victory in a speech to the hundred thousand people who gathered to consecrate this moment. His win had been decisive. Almost 70 million Americans voted for him, whereas John McCain received only 60 million of the ballots cast. The sway of Obama's performance over swing states, as well as independent, moderate, and Republican-leaning voters, allowed Democrats also to gain eight seats in the Senate and twenty-one in the House, paving the way to a supermajority in the U.S. Senate for the first time since 1979. America had elected a civil hero. He was to restore the utopian spirit of the nation's revolutionary origins and the promise of its founding fathers to create a more perfect democracy.

Keywords:   election, Grant Park, Barack Obama, speech, John McCain, swing states, Democrats, Senate, democracy

JUST BEFORE MIDNIGHT ON THE EVENING OF ELECTION DAY, NOVEMBER 4, 2008, in Chicago’s Grant Park, Barack Obama acknowledges victory in a speech to the hundred thousand people who gather to consecrate this moment. His win has been decisive. Almost 70 million Americans vote for him, whereas John McCain receives only 60 million of the ballots cast. Winning the popular vote 53 percent to 46 percent, the Democrat trounces the Republican even more decisively in the electoral college, 68 percent to 32 percent. The sway of Obama’s performance over swing states, as well as independent, moderate, and Republican-leaning voters, allows Democrats also to gain 8 seats in the Senate and 21 in the House, paving the way to a supermajority in the U.S. Senate for the first time since 1979.

In his speech at Grant Park, Obama places these numbers into the frame work of his campaign. He declares that the hinge of history has swung, and he calls upon Americans “to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.” The bright future will be restored. The united spirit of a democratic people will be able to breathe freely again:

This is our moment. This is our time—to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth—that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubt and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.

(p.268) Americans have elected a civil hero. He will restore the utopian spirit of the nation’s revolutionary origins and the promise of its founding fathers to create a more ­perfect democracy:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

In voting for this new hero, this once and future king, the American people have really been voting for themselves. Obama presents himself as but the expression of the solidarity out of which American democracy is made:

It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled—Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.

Candidate Obama has expanded Democratic support into what once were the exclusively Red States of enemy territory, and he has connected powerfully with nonaligned moderates in the middle as well. President-elect Obama knows his presidency can succeed only if he continues to massage the wavering centrists and continues to earn the respect, or at least discourage the enmity, of people and regions who stayed Republican and Red. Pivoting from the partisan contentiousness of campaigning, the president-elect declares, “while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.” After a bruising and heated electoral struggle, Obama calls for the restoration of solidarity. He draws upon the language employed by an earlier, newly elected president when the nation teetered on the brink of a malevolent and violent civil strife, facing real and not merely rhetorical battle: “As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, ‘We are not enemies, but friends…Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.’ ” Speaking “to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn,” Obama declares, “I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president, too.” President-elect Obama hopes that the partisanship of the struggle for power will not carry over to his term in the White House. Will President Obama be able to convince those who resisted his campaign performances that he hears their voices—after the campaign? If they do believe their voices are heard, then McCain voters might (p.269) yet sustain some affection for Obama, and the two sides, even if not friends, might avoid becoming obdurate enemies. Barack Obama will have to perform the role of resident just as felicitously as when he auditioned for it during the campaign, if not more so.

One year after that Grant Park speech, on November 4, 2009, the New York Times marks the anniversary of Obama’s ascension to power in a story headlined “A Year Later, a Daily Grind: The Glow of Obama’s Election Has Long Faded:”

For a president elevated to power on the back of history, the tears and euphoria of Grant Park feel like a thousand years ago. It has been just one year, of course, since Barack Obama’s election, a year since that moment when supporters felt everything was possible amid lofty talk of “remaking this nation” and determined chants of “Yes, we can.”…The hope and hubris have given way to the daily grind of governance, the jammed meeting schedule waiting in the morning, the thick briefing books waiting at night, the thousand little compromises that come in between….Mr. Obama has spent the last 12 months learning more about wielding power.1

The tone is elegiac, contrasting campaigning and governing, idealism and reality, liminality and everyday routine. It is also about the hinge of history having swung and to what avail. At such moments, even the toughest of real-politic tacticians contemplates the ineffable and disappointing transformation of the sacred into the profane:

In the White House, the wistfulness for the simpler days is palpable. “The day was just suffused with emotion and hope and warmth,” David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, recalled about Election Day last year. “But it is an emotional peak that you can’t maintain day to day as you do the business of government. The challenge is to maintain that degree of idealism and optimism as you work through the meat grinder. Everything about the politics of Washington works against hope and optimism and unity. So you have to push against that every day, understanding that it’s going to be an imperfect end result.” He added: “That night was sublime. And much of what goes on in Washington is prosaic. Or profane.”

The election of Barack Obama entitles him to occupy the office of president. When he swore the oath of office before millions standing before him on the Capitol Mall and hundreds of millions more via mass media at home and abroad, he promises to protect and defend the nation’s democratic constitution. Now he (p.270) is legally bound to represent the civil sphere inside the state. President Obama becomes the official symbol of the civil sphere, not somebody fighting to represent it. He is the most potent and visible totem of American democracy, the most powerful civil symbol in this or any other land.

The bridge from struggle and partisanship to this presumption of totemic solidarity is the ritual of voting.2 When the American voters have spoken, as democratic lore has it, they cannot be wrong. Physically, Election Day means pulling a lever or punching a ballot; metaphysically, it is the laying on of hands. In a democracy, voters are narrated as the ultimate font of wisdom, the ultimate repository of civil authority. After many months of conflict and division, voting restores to the civil sphere a respite of solidarity, and the president-elect promises to represent all the people. When voters anoint a candidate, the ritual seems to wash partisanship from his body. The candidate emerges pure as the morning, fresh as the brightly shining sun. In a myth central to American democracy, the best person has won.

Once they have elected and betrothed their newly sacral representative, Americans discharge the old and now deflated symbol who has been governing them, typically with markedly decreasing success. The inflated form of the ewly elected president allows the weary spirit of democracy to be revived and once again to become flesh. For some weeks before and after Obama’s consecration, his heroic stature is everywhere consecrated in material form: T-shirts, paintings, prints, photographs, sculptures, songs, graffiti, and tattoos—iconic images of Barack Obama flood the public sphere.3 Obama’s immortal body enters remarkably into legend, according to the moral and aesthetic logic of myth, even as he asumes control of the secular state according to the rational rules of the Constitution.

The rites of Inauguration Day dress the private, personal body of the ­president-elect in the public, impersonal body of the presidency, elevating the civil sphere’s current representative into the pantheon of democratic heroes, the solemn, gravely enumerated list of those other ordinary humans who also once occupied the exalted office of president of these United States. A new and indelible historical identity attaches to the person of the president. Henceforth, Barack Hussein Obama is not simply a Democratic politician from Chicago or even the first ­African American to be elected to the nation’s highest office. He is the 44th president of the United States. This is a Roman, even a royal process, not at all Greek. The original founders of democracy drew lots for political leadership, reserving elections for military chiefs, and rarely representing either in an iconic way. Memorials for Greek heroes were modest and impersonal, sculpted images reserved mainly for the gods. The Romans changed everything. They had their Caesars and relentlessly made graven images of them, along with the personalized statuary of patriarchs, matriarchs, aristocrats, and military and athletic heroes of every kind.

(p.271) It is said of the American presidency that “the office makes the man.” Certainly the merely human figure who occupies the office is seen through its lens. To be president is ipso facto to be in some part a mythical hero. A republic demands nothing less. Henceforth, musical “Ruffles and Flourishes” accompany the appearance of Barack Obama in public, and deference is paid to him wherever he goes. In the course of his duties, he is addressed impersonally by the title of his office, never, even by old friends who now serve him, by his given names. Such symbolic bowing and scraping is perceived not as demeaning and undemocratic but as obeisance to democracy, as pride in the civil sphere, not as kowtowing to authority but as exalting the collective representation of democracy.

Despite these ritual flourishes and beneath this putative, symbolic canopy, the United States remains open, diverse, fragmented, and extraordinarily combative. Barack Obama is not elected only as a symbol of the civil sphere but also as a representative of the party. He is, in addition, head of a mind-bogglingly massive organization that is the government of the United States, wielding not only domestic power but also control over the greatest arsenal of physical violence ever known. As the only nationally elected leader and the civil sphere’s single most vivid symbol, the president exercises impressive executive power, yet he remains a person of his party and does not possess legislative control. The power to make law belongs to Congress, not to the president. Congress can be, and often is, controlled by the opposing party. Even when it is not and the party controlling the Congress is the president’s own, the chief executive exercises only titular control over members of Congress and senators of the president’s own side.

Presidents struggle continuously to control divisions inside their own party and to gain influence over members of the opposition. The heart of the campaign staff moves into the West Wing of the White House. The same performance team that has fought and clawed and cleared Obama’s pathway to power, that has worked the binaries and walked the boundaries and molded the image and depicted the other fellow and his party as the gravest of dangers to the democratic character of the United States—this same group of men and women now needs to work the old magic and more if Barack Obama is to govern successfully as president of the United States. Yet, even as assuming power demands an expanded audience and enlarged performance, the paradoxical consequence of victory is that the ambition and energy for dramatic action often ebbs. There’s a post-hoc sense of naturalism among those who win big in the struggle for great power. Having always been convinced they are worthier than their opponents, they are now tempted to believe that their actual superiority is what allowed them to win. The staff and candidate forget that their campaign persona was symbolically constructed, that their winning character was performed, and that the election could have gone against them (p.272) if they had not been so skillful or their opponents so clumsy or if the stars had been aligned in a different way.

Whether the newly inaugurated president remains a powerful collective representative is always in doubt. The charisma of the people is only deposited in the person of the president. It is given to him on inspection. The president has taken a loan, and he must pay it back with speech, action, and good works of an impressive kind. His legislation can be blocked, his government paralyzed. The binaries can be worked against him, and he may come to seem distant and autocratic. He can stumble while walking the boundaries, seeming to mishandle the economy or distort race relations or fail powerfully to defend, via arms or diplomacy, the interests of the United States. To the degree that the president is perceived to fail in these tasks—whether symbolic or real—he is constructed as an inadequate ­representative of the civil sphere in the state. His person is separated from his public body. The image deflates, and his poll ratings nosedive. The nation’s leader will not be able to govern or preside. To his small band of still-devoted followers, the chief executive is a fallen hero. To the majority of the citizen audience, he seems incompetent, irrational, or irresponsible, somewhere between being evil and ­simply being a jerk.

To collectively represent the civil sphere in the state, politically and symbolically, the newly elected president must demonstrate not only integrity and competence but also heroic might. Not only must he possess power putatively but actually exercise it in real time as well. To sustain utopian possibilities for transformation, to be the changer rather than changed, the president must not only move society but be seen to move it, facing down foreign leaders and domestic legislators alike. He must cut the Gordian knot of festering social problems that have bedeviled his predecessors. He must change the world practically and resolve the “crisis of our times” rhetorically constructed during the campaign.

Whether such literal accomplishments are even remotely possible is a matter of fortune, competence, resources, and strategy. But the figurative matters, too. Nothing is more practical than a good performance. The president needs to claim the center of the nation’s imagination. Yet, even as he spreads his “manna,” the president cannot be seen as mixing too much with mundane figures, or else the aura of sacred charisma will fade.4 So the president brings in down-and-dirty men and women who are practical and clever and expert at weaving the fabric of the real world, not the fairy wisps of the heroic imaginary that the president himself must seek to sustain. Even as the person of the president busily directs these minions, the president’s public body sequesters itself inside the mystery of the White House, wrapped inside the aura of high office. When he steps outside, it is not to make sausage with legislators but to spread symbolic power, to project and rejuvenate his totemic status as civic symbol. The president meets “the people” (p.273) in cloistered settings and collects their energy and applause before cameras that ­project an elevated image back to the wider public audience at one remove.

The president does not personally get down and dirty in public. Though a partisan himself, he wishes to be seen as working the moral binaries that define civil society in a nonpartisan manner and as walking the boundaries that relate the civil sphere to the rest of American society in an expansive, dignified, yet high-spirited way. It is as a putatively collective representation that the president visits grade schools and universities; families and ethnic communities; mosques, churches, and synagogues; factories and small businesses; civilian and military hospitals; and foreign lands regardless of their distance from or friendship with the United States. The presidential totem embodies the positive aspirations of the civil sphere. When it makes contact with noncivil spheres and organizations, they become connected with an emblem of a wider, more universal solidarity in a vivid, powerful, often electrifying way. If the president collects enough charismatic authority and successfully conserves it, he can bend the arc of history, creating legislation and organization that will allow the crisis of our times to come out right.

It is a big “if.” Despite the powers of office, presidential performances are contingent and fragile. The president is a tightrope walker. Citizen audiences and media interpreters watch the performer’s every move, and there is no safety net underneath. (p.274)


(1.) Peter Baker, “A Year Later, a Daily Grind: The Glow of Obama’s Election Has Long Faded,” NYT, November 4, 2009, A19, and below.

(2.) See Inge Schmidt, “When Good Ballots Go Bad: Voting Ritual (and Its Failure) in the United States,” PhD diss., Department of Sociology, Yale University, 2010.

(3.) A special “Obama Issue” of the Journal of Visual Culture published in August 2009 gives breathless scholarly voice to the iconic spirit that marks the transition period. Avowing that “Obama is unquestionally the most visible of U.S. presidents to date,” W.J.T. Mitchell, a leading philosopher of the visual, suggests “this is partly an effect of…the personal beauty of himself and his family, his sculpted facial features, his body image especially in motions that reveal athleticism” (“Obama as Icon,” Journal of Visual Culture 8 [2] 2009: 125–129, p. 125). Celebrating Shephard Fairey’s Obama posters, so ubiquitous that they provided an official emblem for the inauguration, John Armitage and Joy Garnet exclaim that the images “bring people together in struggle and they show that this struggle can be given expression…through transformations of single news photograph into artworks that describe [a] man whose very likeness has come to embody hope” (“Obama and Shephard Fairey: The Copy and Political Iconography in the Age of the Demake [sic],” in ibid., 172–183, p. 183).

(4.) For a related analysis of the fate of heroes, one that more closely hues to the Weberian framework of charisma and its institutionalization, see Bernhard Giesen, “Inbetweenness and Ambivalence,” in J. Alexander, Ronald Jacobs, and Philip Smith, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Cultural Sociology (New York: Oxford, 2011).