“One of the things you realize fairly quickly in this job is that there is a character people see out there called Barack Obama. That’s not you. Whether it is good or bad, it is not you. I learned that on the campaign.”
Barack Obama has a star image. The quote above should make that clear. There’s “the real” Obama — the living, breathing, guy with bodily functions — and there’s BARACK OBAMA, the public image, the thing Obama talks about above. And that image is an ideological construction: an accumulation of photo ops, statements, sound bites, and things we, as a public (American or otherwise) need/want him to be.
His star image also includes “exclusive, all-access” profiles of him published in Vanity Fair – profiles that acknowledge the presence of a star image. And this is key: just because it acknowledges Obama’s star image doesn’t mean it doesn’t participation in its reification.
So take a look, then, at the opening to Michael Lewis’s recent “exclusive, all-access” (read: authentic) time with Obama:
At nine o’clock one Saturday morning I made my way to the Diplomatic Reception Room, on the ground floor of the White House. I’d asked to play in the president’s regular basketball game, in part because I wondered how and why a 50-year-old still played a game designed for a 25-year-old body, in part because a good way to get to know someone is to do something with him. I hadn’t the slightest idea what kind of a game it was. The first hint came when a valet passed through bearing, as if they were sacred objects, a pair of slick red-white-and-blue Under Armour high-tops with the president’s number (44) on the side. Then came the president, looking like a boxer before a fight, in sweats and slightly incongruous black rubber shower shoes. As he climbed into the back of a black S.U.V., a worried expression crossed his face. “I forgot my mouth guard,” he said. Your mouth guard? I think. Why would you need a mouth guard?
“Hey, Doc,” he shouted to the van holding the medical staff that travels with him wherever he goes. “You got my mouth guard?” The doc had his mouth guard. Obama relaxed back in his seat and said casually that he didn’t want to get his teeth knocked out this time, “since we’re only 100 days away.” From the election, he meant, then he smiled and showed me which teeth, in some previous basketball game, had been knocked out. “Exactly what kind of game is this?” I asked, and he laughed and told me not to worry. He doesn’t. “What happens is, as I get older, the chances I’m going to play well go down. When I was 30 there was, like, a one-in-two chance. By the time I was 40 it was more like one in three or one in four.” He used to focus on personal achievement, but as he can no longer achieve so much personally, he’s switched to trying to figure out how to make his team win. In his decline he’s maintaining his relevance and sense of purpose.
Basketball hadn’t appeared on the president’s official schedule, and so we traveled the streets of Washington unofficially, almost normally. A single police car rode in front of us, but there were no motorcycles or sirens or whirring lights: we even stopped at red lights. It still took only five minutes to get to the court inside the F.B.I. The president’s game rotates around several federal courts, but he prefers the F.B.I.’s because it is a bit smaller than a regulation court, which reduces also the advantages of youth. A dozen players were warming up. I recognized Arne Duncan, the former captain of the Harvard basketball team and current secretary of education. Apart from him and a couple of disturbingly large and athletic guys in their 40s, everyone appeared to be roughly 28 years old, roughly six and a half feet tall, and the possessor of a 30-inch vertical leap. It was not a normal pickup basketball game; it was a group of serious basketball players who come together three or four times each week. Obama joins when he can. “How many of you played in college?” I asked the only player even close to my height. “All of us,” he replied cheerfully and said he’d played point guard at Florida State. “Most everyone played pro too—except for the president.” Not in the N.B.A., he added, but in Europe and Asia.
Overhearing the conversation, another player tossed me a jersey and said, “That’s my dad on your shirt. He’s the head coach at Miami.” Having highly developed fight-or-flight instincts, I realized in only about 4 seconds that I was in an uncomfortable situation, and it took only another 10 to figure out just how deeply I did not belong. Oh well, I thought, at least I can guard the president. Obama played in high school, on a team that won the Hawaii state championship. But he hadn’t played in college, and even in high school he hadn’t started. Plus, he hadn’t played in several months, and he was days away from his 51st birthday: how good could he be?
The president ran a couple of laps around the gym, then shouted, “Let’s go!” He himself divvied up the teams so each one had roughly the same number of giants and the same number of old people. Having put me on his team, he turned to me and said, “We’ll sit you first, until we get a little bit of a lead.” I thought he was joking, but actually he wasn’t; he was as serious as a heart attack. I was benched. I took my place in the wooden stands, along with a few of the other players, and the White House photographer, the medical team, the Secret Service, and the guy with the buzz cut who carried the nuclear football, to watch the president play.
Obama was 20 or more years older than most of them, and probably not as physically gifted, though it was hard to say because of the age differences. No one held back, no one deferred. Guys on his team dribbled past him and ignored the fact he was wide open. When he drives through the streets, crowds part, but when he drives to the basket large, hostile men slide over to cut him off. It’s revealing that he would seek out a game like this but even more that others would give it to him: no one watching would have been able to guess which guy was president. As a player on the other team, who must have outweighed Obama by a hundred pounds, backed the president of the United States down and knocked the crap out of him, all for the sake of a single layup, I leaned over to the former Florida State point guard.
“No one seems to be taking it easy on him,” I said.
“If you take it easy on him, you’re not invited back,” he explained.
I thought to myself, It must be hard not to take it easy on the president.
The point guard laughed, turned to another guy on the bench, and said, “Remember Rey?”
“Who’s Rey?” I asked.
“Rey pump-faked, turned, and just connected with the president right in the mouth,” the other guy said. “Gave him 16 stitches.”
“Where’s Rey?” I asked.
“Rey hasn’t been back.”
Obama could find a perfectly respectable game with his equals in which he could shoot and score and star, but this is the game he wants to play. It’s ridiculously challenging, and he has very little space to maneuver, but he appears happy. He’s actually just good enough to be useful to his team, as it turns out. Not flashy, but he slides in to take charges, passes well, and does a lot of little things well. The only risk he takes is his shot, but he shoots so seldom, and so carefully, that it actually isn’t much of a risk at all. (He smiles when he misses; when he makes one, he looks even more serious.) “Spacing is big. He knows where to go,” said one of the other players as we watched. “And unlike a lot of lefties, he can go to his right.”
And he chattered constantly. “You can’t leave him open like that!” … “Money!” … “Take that shot!” His team jumped ahead, mainly because it took fewer stupid shots. When I threw one up I discovered the reason for this. When you are on the president’s basketball team and you take a stupid shot, the president of the United States screams at you. “Don’t be looking to the sidelines all sheepish,” he hollered at me. “You got to get back and play D!”
So what do we have here? A president who likes to play basketball? Well, sure. But it’s also a powerful contribution to Obama’s image, structured, as it is, by strong lines of competitiveness, fairness, tenacity, and vivaciousness. The metaphor, of course — and the reason Lewis leads with this anecdote — is that Obama lives his life, and leads the country, the same way he plays basketball: with integrity, verve, humor, the sort of skill that characterizes those who can play at any game they put their mind to….even against those with better training, longer pedigrees, and stronger natural skills.
Let’s do a little decoding:
“If you take it easy on him, you’re not invited back.” = He hates sycophants, suck-ups, and others who aren’t honest about him/his skills
“No one held back, no one deferred.” = Obama craves a level playing field; always wants to bounce his ideas and skills against those who are his equal or better.
“You got to get back and play D!” = Hey Famous Writer, I hold you to the same standards of play, authenticity, and effort as I hold myself.
“He used to focus on personal achievement, but as he can no longer achieve so much personally, he’s switched to trying to figure out how to make his team win. In his decline he’s maintaining his relevance and sense of purpose.” = Duh.
None of this symbolism is too hidden. But the best part of the section is what’s hiding right in plain sight: the basketball itself. Sure, the way Obama plays basketball is a metaphor for his political life. But the fact that he plays basketball at all — it’s difficult to overstate how important that is.
Because if you know anything about Obama’s image, you know he plays basketball. You know he loves sports. You probably know that he used to unwind by shooting hoops with his “body man.” You know that he does his own Final Four bracket, that he proposed to revamp the College Bowl system. That he’s a White Sox fan. And while many presidents have been sports fans — hell, W. even owned a team — Obama is the first contemporary president with an image cornerstone of sports.
And not just any sport. Obama seems to like baseball and watch football, but basketball, that’s signifies something different:
- Intensely physical
- Demands a different sort of stamina
- Dominated (currently) by black men…
- …within an infrastructure run, owned, and funded by white, upper-class men of privilege.
- Heavy on the shit-talk: the best at the game are true wordsmiths
- Associated with a physique that is not threatening
- Born and popularized IN AMERICA
Are you picking up what I’m putting down? Put differently, are you understanding why Obama’s team would be keen to associate the president with sports in general and basketball in particular?
Am I reading too much into this? Did Obama’s team say “hey Barack, play more basketball?” No way. As Obama himself is keen to emphasize in the interview, he can’t fake sentiment or passion — when he does, it comes off as fake. I think he loves basketball. But I think that it’s no accident that Lewis was invited to this game….or, even more importantly, that Lewis decided that the sentiments and characteristics manifest there would work perfectly in the start of the most high-profile piece of the President in the last weeks leading up to the election.
Finally, the brilliance of a basketball game — and Lewis’s self-effacing participation in it — is that it doesn’t seem like publicity, or image-building, at all. It seems like a window into the authentic, all-access Obama. And the very best publicity, of course, is the publicity that convinces us it’s no such thing.