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Obama is no superhero

By Timothy Stanley
updated 8:40 AM EDT, Wed May 14, 2014
President Barack Obama and emcee Conan O'Brien shake hands at the end of the White House Correspondents' Dinner at the Washington Hilton on Saturday, April 27. President Barack Obama and emcee Conan O'Brien shake hands at the end of the White House Correspondents' Dinner at the Washington Hilton on Saturday, April 27.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Timothy Stanley: If Obama is a disappointment, Hollywood is partly to blame
  • Stanley: Obama used to challenge or snub the celebrity liberal elite
  • He says it's ironic that Obama needs their help now, for money and for image
  • Stanley: Hollywood might still imagine him to be a superhero, but there's reality

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of the new book, "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Recently, Obama told Hollywood that America is not cool with itself. Speaking at the home of Walt Disney executive Alan Horn, he looked into the eyes of stars like Barbra Streisand and James Brolin and said that the country is full of "disquiet," that the future risks "more cynicism, more dysfunction," and that "we have a Washington that's not working." In the distance, a car alarm went off. The President quipped, "Sound the alarm, because we've got a problem."

There was a lot of predictable gloom in those remarks, given the President's low approval rating, but also a surprising lack of self-awareness. If Obama has proved to be a disappointment then Hollywood is partly responsible for all the unrealistic ambitions that have surrounded him. And there's big irony in the fact that he is now seeking comfort from the very liberal elite that he once seemed to challenge.

Back in the 2008 Democratic primaries, Hollywood was solid Clinton country; it only rallied to Obama after he snagged the nomination. After he won the White House, there were two years of mutual snub between L.A. and D.C. Not only did some moviemakers gripe that the President was a reluctant reformer (remember Matt Damon or Robert Redford or remind yourself of when Obama was still anti-gay marriage), but he rarely called people to say "thank you" for everything they've done for him. Hollywood might tolerate inaction, but it can't abide the absence of flattery.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

So how did Obama change his mind about Hollywood? The change occurred thanks to the rise of the tea party, which galvanized West Coast liberals, and the President's sudden conversion to the legalization of gay marriage, which happen to come at a time when local reports indicated that his Hollywood money was in danger of drying up. Almost overnight, Hollywood assumed a structural importance in his re-election campaign to rival that of organized labor, liberal PACs or even the DNC. Here's another irony: Hollywood benefited from the changes to campaign finance that many stars protested against. Citizens United allowed moviemakers to act as bundlers, buying them new levels of access and influence.

This corresponded with a subtle change in the way that Obama was sold to the voter. In 2008, he was the outsider offering change (although the famous "Yes We Can" video was a 100% Hollywood product produced by Bob Dylan's son, Jesse). Come 2012, he now represented various faces of liberal authority -- many of them defined by Hollywood archetypes.

For example, there was an experiment in reinventing Obama as Atticus Finch, the lawyer played by Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Obama gave a televised introduction to the movie on the USA Network channel in 2012. Film critic Tom Shone noted that Obama wanted the viewer to imagine that he was "cut from exactly the same liberal oak as Peck's Atticus Finch (retrenching) Obama's status as the defender of the mainstream."

Correspondents' dinner in two minutes
President Obama keeps the zingers coming
President Obama makes crowd laugh
Obama pokes fun at Congress

Defender, too, of law and order. For the release of "The Dark Knight Rises," the White House publicized a photo of Obama and Biden with the tagline, "The Dynamic Duo," capitalizing upon the plotline of a caped crusader protecting an American city against a greedy villain who bore almost the same name to the company that Mitt Romney set up -- Bane/Bain. And once the election was over, the first movie that Obama showed in the White House was Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," with its equally prescient synopsis of a President who overcomes partisan divisions to bring social justice to America. "I never compared myself to Lincoln", Obama told David Gregory on "Meet the Press." But he did film a metajoke for the White House Correspondents Dinner in which he played Daniel Day-Lewis preparing to play Obama in a biopic spoof of Lincoln.

Alas, Barack Obama is no Lincoln. Honest Abe may have had the power to make the opposition vote his way, but when Obama invited congressional Republicans to attend the showing of Spielberg's movie, not one of them turned up. That's typical. When the President threw a barbecue for newly elected House Republicans, only one third showed, and John Boehner has set a record for dodging state dinners.

Once, Obama eschewed connection with the Hollywood liberal establishment. Now he relies upon it for money, for selling Obamacare to voters and -- most importantly -- for helping to define a shifting image of what he wants his presidency to be. There is nothing unusual in this. Richard Nixon used John Wayne to define his foreign policy, Ronald Reagan's Western swagger was pure Hollywood invention. But this kind of celluloid fantasy-making is far from healthy.

Congress isn't a place that can be navigated by idealism; a dangerous world cannot be managed with superhero theatrics (such as drone strikes).

Expectations are raised excessively by promising to solve all these problems with the same ease that they do in the movies. Moreover, talking in clich├ęs encourages partisanship. While the Democrats cling to being Jed Bartlets, the Republicans see themselves as Men With No Name -- and there's little common ground that can be reached between people competing to be more stubbornly archetypal than the rest.

Where do you retreat to when your policies fail and the partisanship grows deafening? Your base. After a term and a half of promising to be a different kind of Democrat, to change things, to reshape politics for ordinary people -- Barack Obama finds himself seeking comfort in the audience of old-fashioned, dare I say "fading," liberal stars like Barbra Streisand.

Hollywood might still imagine him to be a superhero, but Obama has really become the thing that in 2008 he set out to avoid: another Clinton Democrat.

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