I first noticed it back in April, during the G-20 meetings in Europe. Obama was his usual charming, articulate, presidential self. That's nothing new; he's a public relations dream come true. But during one of his speeches, his eye and head movements were out of sync. His eyes would remain fixed in one location while his head would move onto another location, with the eyes catching up a second or two later. This delay created a dissonance within in Obama's delivery. Something wasn't right; he was off kilter. That's when it struck me; he's reading from teleprompters. This would not have been a big deal if I could actually see the teleprompters. But the more I looked, the more I could not find them. I actually began second guessing myself. Is he really reading his speech? If so, then where in the world are the teleprompters? If he's not reading, why are his eyes and head out of sync? My obsession with this kind of detail may seem strange, but I am a professor of Public Communication, having taught numerous courses in public speaking, rhetoric, persuasion, analysis, and so on. I am trained to see and for the most part obsess over such details.
My partner of ten years happened to walk into the room during my observation. She, too, is experienced in the field of communication, having earned a masters degree in Speech Communication with an emphasis in performance and theater. Upon asking for her input, she said that Obama is definitely not reading from teleprompters. "There's nothing there," she said. "The cameras are showing full frontal positions, side positions, close ups and long shots. There's no teleprompter. It would be impossible to hide." "But look at his eyes," I responded. "Something's not right." Then all of a sudden I saw it--two teleprompters strategically placed to conceal their presence. "Ha! I saw it! There it is!" My partner, not seeing the evidence, started to question my observation. But as time passed and with me literally walking up to and emphatically pointing to the television, she acknowledged that the gig is up--Obama is reading from teleprompters.
This story points to something much more important than a friendly debate between two partners: Obama's use of hidden teleprompters symbolizes the deep-rooted and wide-ranging systemic constraints that prohibit profound and progressive social change. Even an individual as gifted as Obama cannot overcome the constraints of the modern day American presidency. There's no way that he can personally write, rehearse, craft, and memorize every speech. Too many other pressing demands consume his time and energy. These wider constraints thus prohibit Obama from exercising his full potential. Obama's teleprompted oration is of course symbolic of the entire Obama presidency: His calls for progressivism are quarantined by the system in which he operates.
I hope that I am wrong. More affordable healthcare, better education, green technologies and new forms of energy improve our living conditions. And the restoration of civil liberties, the outlawing of torture, and the curbing of the exaggerated "war on terrorism" can repair some of the damage caused by the Bush administration. But let's face the facts. These policies are not all that progressive. Most industrialized, democratic nations have been pursuing such items for years, even decades. A truly progressive (let alone radical) agenda would build upon and advance--rather than catch up to--these policies. And let's not forget about the escalation of war in Afghanistan, the upward distribution of wealth created by the bailouts, the timid support for same-sex marriage, and the very weak healthcare proposal. I am not saying that Obama is a horrible president. I voted for him, and I am glad that he rather than McCain is running the show. But we must maintain perspective.
Obama is a one and at most a two term president. He is enveloped within a long tradition of elitism, corruption, partisanship, top down government, the exclusion rather than inclusion of everyday citizens, and of course imperialism and empire. These problems and oppressions both precede and exceed his time in office. Obama does demonstrate potential to follow in the best rather than the worst of presidential traditions. But even the best of these traditions isn't all that great, and that's the point. What will Republicans--as well as many Democrats--allow him to do? What will lobbyists and war profiteers allow him to do? What about the military-industrial and prison-industrial complexes? What about capitalism itself? The list goes on and on. The United States of America is a super power built upon greed and self-preservation. Obama's capabilities for accomplishing truly meaningful, deep-seated, long-lasting change within this system are fairly low. Too many influential voices speak to and through the presidency and those voices want to maintain rather than change the power dynamics of this country.
Many people will acknowledge the legitimacy of my assessment. But many people also quietly and conveniently ignore the wider ills of American power. That's because people want to see Obama as a heroic figure. They want to believe that a single person is capable of righting the wrongs of the past and steering this country toward the Promised Land. This wishful thinking is influenced America's David-versus-Goliath stories. Religious scriptures, folklore, novels, Hollywood movies, television shows, video games, comic books, fairy tales, and even low budget commercials are based on heroism. We are predisposed toward the heroic narrative.