I was in Chicago over the Memorial Day weekend attending a meeting and taking advantage of all the Windy City had to offer. Among other things, I happened upon an exhibition of "inspired art for Obama." Titled Officially Unofficial, the show featured posters, prints, photography and video that supported Barack Obama's historic bid for the presidency.
In addition to "official art" produced by the Obama campaign, the exhibition at the Chicago Tourism Center also featured independently produced work that was, in turns, stark and celebratory, whimsical and incisive. Alongside Shepard Fairey's ubiquitous Obama Hope poster and Ron English's Abraham Obama were less-well-known, but equally affective pieces by less-established artists. For instance, one rather disturbing but revealing graphic featured a gun aimed at two bloodied feet, labeled 2000 and 2004 respectively.
"What was most striking about the exhibition was palpable sense of possibility and promise captured by the campaign art."
Other more subtle, but no less engaging pieces depicted Obama as a pop icon or star athlete. Stencils of Obama -- with a baseball hat worn hip-hop fashion and the logo "New Era" emblazoned on the back -- were paired with iconic images of another young, charismatic leader of an earlier generation, JFK. Drawing on a different sort of American mythology, another image shows Obama tearing off his shirt, a la Superman's alter ego Clark Kent, to reveal a huge O on his chest.
In a slightly more down-to-earth vein, Obama is seen with a regulation ABA basketball, the White House in the background, a hoop and net in the foreground. And in one especially powerful image, Obama "stands in" for a triumphant Muhammad Ali grimacing at his defeated opponent: John McCain as a vanquished Sonny Liston.
While most images drew on visual iconography from sports, politics and popular culture, other pieces skillfully integrated text from Obama's campaign rhetoric, including his historic victory speech in Chicago's Grant Park, into graphic images.
What was most striking about the exhibition was palpable sense of possibility and promise captured by the campaign art. And yet, as I took in all of this passionate and provocative work, I couldn't help but wonder if the inspiration is at an end.
For a great many progressives, the Obama administration's early promise is being squandered. When he first took office, it seemed that Obama was committed to transparency and accountability. Since that time, however, he has stepped away from a number of key campaign promises.
"For a great many progressives, the Obama administration's early promise is being squandered."
For instance, Obama's reversal on detainee detentions and his unwillingness to release incriminating photos from Abu Ghraib has angered some of his most ardent supporters. And his continued acquiescence to Wall Street bankers isn't winning him any friends among the rising tide of unemployed Americans, either. And just this past week, his U.S. Environmental Protection Agency okayed 42 permits for mountain top removal coal mining in West Virginia.
Of course, the Democratic leadership in Congress hasn't been making the president's job any easier. Their stunning rebuke of his efforts to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay is but the latest demonstration of weak-kneed liberalism at its most contemptible. Just for the record: these are the same Democrats who enthusiastically voted to increase military spending in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For their part, the congressional Republicans are content to let Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney spearhead a media blitz filled with bluster, innuendo and outright deception. To their credit, rank-and-file Republicans aren't buying any of it. Not yet at any rate. But with a Supreme Court nomination in the balance. the right-wing echo chamber is growing loud and shrill.
Despite Obama's promise of "change" and his commitment to a "new kind of politics," the president is in a tough spot. Confronted with the realities of entrenched interests and partisan politics, it seems that Obama is growing less bold, more cautious by the day. Perhaps that is why some of his statements have fallen a little flat of late.
"It seems that Obama is growing less bold, more cautious by the day."
Just this past week, for example, Obama spoke of the importance of health care reform. "This is our big chance to prove that the movement that started during the campaign isn't over, we are just getting started," he said. "The election in November -- that didn't bring about change, that just gave us the opportunity for change. So now we are really going to have to re-mobilize."
While this sort of rhetoric worked like a charm during the campaign, it rings hollow these days -- especially when the administration and congressional Democrats proclaim that single-payer health care is "off the table."
Obama is smart and politically astute enough to recognize that his powers of persuasion cannot change the political culture in Washington overnight. It remains to be seen, however, if Obama hasn't lost his ability to mobilize the American people.
Perhaps its time for us to return the favor. Last year's presidential campaign was enthralling in large part because Obama inspired passion and political commitment. But if he is to fulfill his promise, we've got to inspire him with all the energy, intellect and creativity we can muster.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He can be reached at email@example.com