Commentary: Where's the Oval Avatar?
The White House likes to use a phrase of tingling adventure to describe the president’s recent penchant for wandering the country talking to people: “The bear is loose.”
There are three problems with this unbearable metaphor: Barack Obama is not in captivity, he’s not a bear, and he’s not loose. As Voltaire said of the Holy Roman Empire, it was “neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”
When our whippetlike president travels on Air Force One from staged photo-op to staged photo-op and then to coinciding fundraiser to coinciding fundraiser, encased by the White House travel behemoth and press centipede, that’s kind of the opposite of breaking loose.
Somehow, I thought that the tech revolution in campaigns would usher in fresh ways for presidents to communicate. In the age of Snapchat, I didn’t think presidents would still be crisscrossing the country to do hokey snaps of chats.
As David Plouffe wrote in The Wall Street Journal last week, “With advancements in artificial intelligence, you could soon have holograms of presidential candidates at your door, interacting with you and asking and answering questions.” He noted that Narendra Modi used holograms to extend his reach during his successful campaign to become the Indian prime minister.
So where’s the Oval Office holodeck?
Besides the fact that the posed pictures end up on Twitter as well as in the paper, prescreened and sanitized political tableaus seem stuck in the 20th century. 44 does rallies and round tables and has Kabuki sit-downs with people in coffee joints just the same way 41 did.
In the sixth year of his presidency, the White House is still trying to cast Barack Obama as a regular guy, playing pool and drinking beer (even though he only took a few sips) in Denver with Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado. This, when the one thing we know, and that Obama wants us to know, is that he’s no regular guy.
As Julie Hirschfeld Davis wrote in The Times on Tuesday, the president has been seeking out the intellectual, artistic and tech elite at private dinners around the globe.
“Sometimes stretching into the small hours of the morning, the dinners reflect a restless president weary of the obligations of the White House and less concerned about the appearance of partying with the rich and celebrated,” Davis wrote.
In Dallas last week, Obama did a short round table with Gov. Rick Perry of Texas on the border imbroglio followed by a barbecue DCCC fundraiser with five round tables of fat cats. Explaining why he was staying away from the heart-wrenching scene on the border, the president said, “This isn’t theater. This is a problem,” adding, “I’m not interested in photo-ops. I’m interested in solving a problem.”
Yet, even as the world is roiling, the president’s desk is clean. As he flees gridlock and a Boehner lawsuit in Washington, the best news for Democrats is that Republicans are talking impeachment. The Democrats can actually make money on that. Obama seems fixated on both the photo-ops he’s doing and the ones he’s not doing.
He didn’t go to the LBJ play on Broadway and meet its Tony-winning star, Bryan Cranston, after Cranston suggested that if he went, he might learn some methods for getting his way with Congress. And the president doesn’t want to be pictured on the border in shots that look as if he’s welcoming children, many fleeing violence in Central America, who are illegally entering the country, even though Pope Francis has advised that “the humanitarian emergency requires, as a first urgent measure, these children be welcomed and protected.”
By now, Americans are so habituated to stagy things, it’s hard to imagine that many people don’t see the president’s roving photo-ops as posed and theatrical.
But Plouffe, who helped devise Obama’s technologically groundbreaking campaign, contends that such events are more important than ever because for younger people, if you don’t have the visual with the words, it’s almost as though it doesn’t exist.
“People like to see their president or their governor or their mayor out mixing it up in the community and not behind the ivory gates,” he told me, adding that he could see a day when a campaign could have a candidate’s hologram materialize in the kitchen of a swing voter in Lorain, Ohio, to talk education.
“It’s not going to be a 2016 thing,” he said. “But it could be a 2020 or a 2024 thing.”
(Microsoft’s Jaron Lanier waggishly suggests that political avatars be saved for fundraising, where their algorithms could be fine-tuned to deliver individual, if hypocritical, pitches that would get the maximum donations.)
“My suspicion,” Plouffe said, “is that unless the Republicans shed some of their intolerance, Hillary Clinton will get all the great tech talent.”
The president’s odysseys are meant to illustrate that he’s still relevant. But do they actually underscore irrelevance by conveying his view that if Republicans in Congress are going to keep blocking him, he may as well go fishin’?