Postrel explains what President Obama has in common with a cellophane candy wrapper

If you enjoyed one of Virginia Postrel’s recent North Carolina presentations on the power of glamour, you might like her latest article for Reason magazine.

For the novelist Yiyun Li, then a child in 1970s China, the glamour of American life emanated from a Western candy wrapper, the prize of her collection: “It was made of cellophane with transparent gold and silver stripes, and if you looked through it, you would see a gilded world, much fancier than our everyday, dull life.” The wrapper, she wrote in 2005, “was the seed of a dream that came true: I left China for an American graduate school in 1996 and have lived here since.” …

… The most striking recent exemplar of glamour was not a movie star or fashion plate but a political candidate: Barack Obama in 2008. With its stylized portraits of the candidate gazing upward and its logo featuring a road stretching toward the horizon, the iconography of Obama’s first presidential campaign was classically glamorous. (The Onion satirized the candidate’s many glamorous photographs in a story headlined “Obama Practices Looking-Off-into-Future Pose.”)

The source of the candidate’s glamour was not merely his campaign’s graphic design, however, but the persona those images signified. Like John Kennedy in 1960, Obama combined youth, vigor, and good looks with the promise of political change. Like Kennedy (and Ronald Reagan, another glamorous president), the candidate was both charming and self-contained. While Kennedy’s wealth set him apart, Obama’s mystery stemmed from his exotic background: an international upbringing and biracial ethnicity that defied conventional categories and distanced him from humdrum American life. He was glamorous because he was different, and his differences mirrored his audience’s aspirations for the country. …

… An asset in a campaign, glamour can make it difficult to govern. A president must make decisions, and any specific action will disappoint-and potentially alienate-supporters who disagree. Nor is governing ever as easy and conflict-free as the campaign dream. Disillusionment is inevitable. In his 2012 re-election campaign, Obama rallied his base more with fear of his opponents than with hope for his second term. “The 2004 version of Barack Obama, who captured the nation with a dazzling speech about unity and went on to win the presidency on a message of hope, died on Monday,” wrote ABC News reporter Matt Negrin in May 2012. “He was 8 years old.” As his mystery and grace dissipated, so did Obama’s glamour.

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