Political Culture: Redefining “Bread and Circuses”

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

The other day my Popdose colleague Ted Asredagoo posed the question of how President-Elect Obama — once he is wrapped up in the business of actually, you know, governing — will manage to carry forward the inspirational themes that enlivened his campaign. There’s no doubt that he created an enormous movement toward renewed activism, both in governing and in citizenship – and that he did so mostly through the power of lofty speeches and iconic imagery. Ted closed his essay with an entreaty to Obama: that “as the presidential bubble forms around him and his day-to-day is taken up with the prose of meeting after meeting, as President he must take great care not to forget his poet’s heart displayed on the campaign.”

I couldn’t agree more with that analysis, but I would take it a step further: Obama must also take great care to ensure that we don’t forget his poet’s heart. Americans face tough times over the next few years, despite our newfound optimism in the wake of Obama’s election; chances are pretty good that, no matter what new policies he implements after his inauguration, our downward economic spiral will continue well into his term. Chances are excellent, meanwhile, that as Obama chooses his battles and launches his new initiatives, critics on the left will ask why he’s not doing even more, while critics on the right will simply dismiss everything he’s doing as pointless and misguided (if not Socialist and anti-American).

That’s their job. In times like these, however, Obama’s job must not be simply to sit behind his desk and make the decisions that (hopefully) will steer us out of this mess over a period of years. He must remember that he is his own best salesman, and that many millions of us supported him precisely because of his ability to inspire … to bring out the best and most hopeful in himself and in us. The rockiest moments of his campaign came at precisely those times when he was momentarily cowed by his opponents’ criticism of his lofty rhetoric and huge crowds: in early March, when Hillary Clinton decided to take Saturday Night Live seriously, and in August, when John McCain responded to Obama’s Berlin speech with the “Celebrity” ads.

The phrase “bread and circuses” traditionally has a negative connotation. Coined by the Roman poet Juvenal, it suggests that the masses will ignore their long-term needs and their highest aspirations in favor of any politician who can provide immediate gratification. Hillary’s “just words” argument and McCain’s “celebrity” dismissals attempted to convince us that “bread and circuses” were all Obama was offering in response to the challenges we face; remember all the news articles from last winter fretting about the rise of an “Obama cult”?

Obama turned such concerns on their ear by showing us his intellect, via his analysis of contemporary race relations following the Jeremiah Wright episode, and then by offering evidence during his international travels that his foreign-policy ideas would bring the rest of the world back to our side. Mostly, however, he proved his fortitude while others crumbled around him – as Hillary became mired in resume embellishment, and as McCain flailed about for a response to the economic crisis. Obama wound up finding a perfect blend of style and substance, balancing the high-flown speechmaking with displays of gravitas and right-minded policies. In the end, the nation viewed both his style and his substance as far preferable to the alternatives.

Obama has no more campaign foes to vanquish, but now he (and we) have a much bigger dragon to slay. In the general huzzahs over his election and the opening days of the transition, many Americans have failed to notice that the economy’s nosedive has, if anything, increased in velocity over the past week. By January 20 the hole we’re digging for ourselves, and for our President-elect, likely will be cavernous indeed. We’re not just going to need new policies – a raft of them, in fact; we’re going to need solace, and encouragement, and calls to shared sacrifice and endeavor. In short, we’re going to need inspiration – of precisely the type that Obama is uniquely qualified to provide.

Many pundits have suggested FDR’s “fireside chats” as a model for Obama to guide us through the coming months and years. That format, however – even if televised – doesn’t play to Obama’s strengths as an orator and leader. The man needs an audience in order to achieve his greatest impact; his cadences, his rhetorical flourishes simply don’t work as well from behind a desk. He will need to get out in front of people, and in front of a nationally televised audience, as frequently as possible in order to advance his agenda and keep our spirits rising even if the economy refuses (at least immediately) to rise with them.

So, yeah, Obama needs to be unafraid to offer us some circuses. On January 20 he is virtually certain to offer one of history’s great inaugural addresses; two or three weeks later, he will go before Congress to give his first State of the Union address. But after that, there will be no more natural opportunities for major speeches to nationwide audiences. He will need to create those opportunities – most likely with an assist from TV executives, who won’t forget the high ratings his campaign speeches always engendered – by scheduling regular prime-time appearances before ready-made crowds (state fairs, governors’ meetings, whatever). With those speeches he can lay out and argue for his policies, and simultaneously reaffirm his mandate and remind us why we hired him to lead us through these times.

If this sounds like an echo of Bill Clinton’s “permanent campaign,” it is – with one distinct difference: the American people have already indicated a boundless appetite for listening to Barack Obama talk. Come on, admit it – aren’t you already going through the DTs, just nine days after Obama’s victory speech? Aren’t you wondering, is he really going to make us wait until January 20 to hear him speak to us again? I know I am.

There’s always YouTube to tide you over, I suppose. There’s also the first of what I imagine will be many audio and video speech collections to feature (exclusively or not) Obama’s greatest moments: Shout! Factory’s five-CD set 100 Greatest, which includes a snippet of an Obama speech last winter (download) as the most recent among short clips from FDR, Reagan, Patton, JFK, MLK and many others. (Other discs in the 100 Greatest set boil down some of the last century’s greatest news stories, scandals, sports moments and, yes, celebrity-related quotes and events to their bare aural essences. If you need to hear “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” until your brain melts, it’s in there.) How long will it be before the commemorative four-DVD set of Obama speeches becomes available?

At every stage of this campaign, Obama used the power of his voice, the pageantry of his speeches and the enthusiasm of his audiences to remind us that his was the biggest and most inspirational presence in contemporary politics. Will that solve our problems, once he has taken the oath? Of course not! But as long as his policies remain firmly in the national interest, as long as his actions bring the promise of bread not too far down the road, Obama would be well served to offer up a few circuses along the way.