Obama’s Glamour Problem

Former reason editor Virginia Postrel on the economics of health care and the intersection of glamour and politics.

Virginia Postrel has a knack for changing the way people think about everyday phenomena. As editor of reason during the 1990s, Postrel predicted how Western enthusiasm for Marxism would, in the wake of communism’s collapse, transfer seamlessly to a top-down, regulatory brand of environmentalism. When the World Wide Web triggered the excitable imaginations of censorious legislators, she calmly explained that thick strains in both major political tendencies cling to the precautionary principle at the expense of liberating progress.

In The Future and its Enemies (1998), Postrel tossed aside the traditional left-right paradigm and posited a new post–Cold War divide between “dynamists” and “stasists,” in which the former championed choice and creativity and the latter clung to fear and control. In The Substance of Style (2003), she unpacked the economics of design and offered an appreciation of the Age of Aesthetics. And when she donated her own kidney to a woman on the organ waiting list in 2006, Postrel introduced tens of thousands of people to the once radical idea of organ markets in a way no academic treatise ever could. In each of these cases, those who encounter Postrel’s work will never look at the subject the same way again.

In 2009 Postrel launched a new website called Deep Glamour to probe (as its motto says) the “intersection of imagination & desire.” In a typically eclectic selection from March, the site discussed female body image, the universal hatred for Oscar speeches, the power of nonverbal rhetoric, and whether cuteness and glamour can co-exist. By changing the way we think about glamour, Postrel is helping us better understand, among other things, the allure and frustration of the current American president.

Now 50, Postrel has spent her post-reason career writing for The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and her popular personal blog (vpostrel.com/weblog). reason.tv producer Ted Balaker caught up with Postrel last February in Los Angeles, where she returned in 2007 after living for several years in Dallas. You can watch an edited video of this interview at reason.tv.

reason: Tell us about DeepGlamour.net.

Virginia Postrel: DeepGlamour.net explores glamour in its many manifestations. We write essays; it’s not a street fashion blog or something like that. My view of glamour is that it is not a style, it is not just about movie stars, and it is in fact a powerful form of visual rhetoric and persuasion, an imaginative process like humor that takes place between an audience and an object. It takes many different forms, depending on the audience and what they find glamorous—the cultural context.

reason: You’ve called glamour a beautiful illusion. A lot of people would say that describes President Obama. 

Postrel: Yes, President Obama is a very glamorous figure. Glamour is a particular form of illusion. It’s an illusion that tells a truth about the audience’s desires, and it requires mystery and distance. During the campaign people projected onto Barack Obama whatever they wanted in a president or even in a country. Lying is usually a bad thing, but they would project onto him that he was lying about his positions because he secretly agreed with them: “Anyone that smart has got to be a free trader at heart. He’s just saying this to pander to those idiots. He can’t really mean it.”

You’ve seen, as he’s taken office and tried to govern, this back and forth where he is consciously or unconsciously trying to maintain his glamour—which requires a kind of distance from the political process so that people can continue to see him as representing them, regardless of their contradictory views—while actually trying to be president, which means you have to decide what to do about Guantanamo. You have to decide what health care bill you’re going to back. You have to decide all these things, and you’re going to make somebody disillusioned. This morning I saw that the former editor of Harper’s is about to write a book, The Mendacity of Hope, attacking Obama from the left. That’s the power and the downside of glamour.

reason: I’m going to read you something you wrote in an April 2008 column: “Obama’s glamour gives him a powerful political advantage, but it also poses special problems for the candidate and, if he succeeds, for the country.” Can you explain what you meant and how it has played out?

Postrel: The flip side of glamour is horror. People say, “Oh, there’s something he’s hiding. It must be something terrible.” They say “he’s secretly a radical Muslim” or “he’s secretly really born in Kenya.” As opposed to saying he has policies that are bad for the country. So that is one type of disadvantage.

The other is the one that I just talked about, which is that there is always this capacity for disillusionment. People have projected so much of what they think, including things that are sort of impossible, onto a glamorous figure, that when any flaw shows up the glamour is dispelled and suddenly he becomes terrible.

reason: Is glamour bad for a president seeking re-election, after people have realized he couldn’t possibly live up to all of our hopes?

Postrel: There were two glamorous presidents in my lifetime besides Obama. The first was JFK, and he dealt with this problem by getting killed. That was something I didn’t want to mention in an article about Obama. There were lots of problems in the Kennedy administration and lots of secrets that were being hidden that came out later. But because he was assassinated, the glamour stayed. 

The other glamorous president of my lifetime, I would argue, was Ronald Reagan. And he managed to govern because he actually did stand for some specific ideas that brought a broad consensus of supporters together. He was still a figure of distance and mystery, to the extent that his authorized biographer, who followed him around for years, was unable to get at what the man was really like and wrote a semi-fictionalized biography with fake characters. But there was a core of identifiable beliefs that enabled him to govern and to maintain this sort of glamour, particularly to the Reagan coalition. Libertarians would say, “well, he’s really more libertarian,” and social conservatives would say, “well, he’s really more socially conservative.” But he did have specific beliefs that held those people together. They didn’t hold together so well after him. 

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Federal Dog||

    "Yes, President Obama is a very glamorous figure."

    The same people who actually think this think Brittany Spears is "glamorous" too.

    Glamour is a completely separate concept from shoving one's face constantly into the public limelight.

  • Ezra (Klein) Crocker||

    LEAVE BARACK ALONE!!! JUST LEAVE HIM ALOOOOONE!!!!! LEAVE OBAMA ALONE!!! (SOBS)

  • Jordan Elliot||

    Yes! Weep for your Messiah and not for the pain, sorrow, and stupidity he hath wrought!

  • Jordan Elliot||

    I don't even know why I posted this. It just sounded cool at the time.

    Have a nice day! :D

  • ||

    Probably because you're an unbearable prick.

  • Fluffy||

    Come on, there's no comparison.

    I hate Obama at this point, but he's "good looking unthreatening well-spoken thin well-dressed urban hipster black dude" which means that the world's panties are thrown at his feet.

    Britney Spears is a fat white trash Cheetos-eating trailer park skank.

    Obama is a great big pile of FAIL, but it comes in a Poitieresque package so I have to concede that he has "glamor". For what that's worth, which is bupkis.

  • Angela Merkel||

    Wir sind nicht mit diesem "dünne, gut gekleidet, leeren Anzug" beeindruckt. Er macht George W. Bush aussehen wie Max Planck.

  • Wegie||

    Obama hat die Gehirne von einem Holzbrett.

  • dc||

    Your German stinks, too. Obama hat das Gehirn eines Holzbretts. If at all.

  • dc||

    Your German stinks. It's "Wir sind nicht VON diesem "duenneN, gut gekleideteN, leeren Anzug beeindruckt. Im Vergleich zu ihm sieht GWB wie Max Planck aus."
    Vier - setzen.

  • ||

    I don't know about "hipster" and "well-spoken." One is, by definition, not a "hipster" if one, notwithstanding his professed love of one of baseball's glamour teams, can't name even a single player on said team and mumbles and stumbles in his failure to do so.

    Well spoken, by definition, means an ability to communicate without filler language. Obama fails.

  • S.A.||

    Whoa, whoa... since when are the White Sox a "glamour" team? I think you maybe are confusing them with the other baseball team in Chicago.

  • SIV||

    Fluffy is queer for Obama

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  • Me Libertarian||

    “Anyone that smart has got to be a free trader at heart. He’s just saying this to pander to those idiots. He can’t really mean it.”

    Free traders smart!

    Me not notice booms and busts of bubble capitalism.

    Me not care much about children working and sleeping at their sewing machines.

    Me totally okay with poison in water and air and ground.

    That's freedom. I like freedom. Freedom good. All freedom the same.

  • Scarecrow||

    "If you only had a brain!"

  • Jordan Elliot||

    "Free traders smart!"

    Yes.

    "Me not notice booms and busts of bubble capitalism."

    Then you should be more observant.

    "Me not care much about children working and sleeping at their sewing machines."

    Same here.

    "Me totally okay with poison in water and air and ground."

    Good for you.

    "That's freedom. I like freedom. Freedom good. All freedom the same."

    Now if we can only convince everyone else of this.

  • ENDTHEFED||

    "Me not notice booms and busts of bubble capitalism."

    Me not notice we use GOVERNMENT MONEY.

    Me not notice most important market price (interest rates!) is centrally planned.

    Me not know what FRB is.

    Me never heard of ABCT.

  • Me Libertarian||

    Me cling to same ideas no matter what history show and how many people suffer at the hands of dominant class.

    Me not notice role of central banking in every western democracy.

    Me not leave western democracy to live somewhere else! Me prefer this standard of living!

    Me free!

  • Me Unfunny Moron||

    Me unfunny moron.
    Me wish me had more in playbook.
    Me don't.
    Me unfunny moron.
    No, no. Please no tune me out! Me try harder! Me learn basics of satire and wit! Me promise!
    No tune me out! No! No! Nooo.....

  • ungov||

    me like poison in water and air in soviet Russia, because nobody profits!

    me like child labour for the state, because it's not selfish

    me prefer permanent bust of north korea to uncertain prosperity of south korea....

    me prefer tyranny to freedom, because some freedoms are bad...

  • Me Libertarian||

    Me think world only black and white.

    Someone say word "nuance" and me think they foreigner.

    Me also very, very worried about Soviet Russia.

  • Enyap||

    Who gave jar jar blinks an internet connection?

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Virginia Postrel zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz Glamour zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz 3 pages zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  • Arthur C. Clarke||

    And it still happens to have more substance than your feeble attempts at a blog, good sir! And might I suggest you keep your plagiarist proclivities to minimum? Good day, sir.

  • Kolohe||

    These interviews were better when Virginia Postrel was in charge.

  • Marc||

    Thank you. Thread over.

  • Rich||

    We can still DRINK, though, right?

  • ||

    Obama likes to be in the spotlight. He loves being the center of attention. Don't take the man out of his element. Take the element out of the man. Ya feel me? BTW gang, check out http://www.thepartisandialogues.com for awesome political news and discussions.

  • seanrude||

    Obama had a BEER summit with that Harvard professor and the Cop. BEER, folks, BEER.

    BTW, check out Tilting Suds, my beer blog, at http://tiltingsuds.wordpress.com/

  • ||

    Being a dweeb is glamorous?

    I had no idea.

  • Jaleel White||

    I set the standard playing Steve Urkel, and it paid a pretty penny too! What could go wrong? BTW, have you seen my career lately?

  • ||

    TO ALL THE COMMUNIST IN THE IG,FBI,CIA,AND U.S. Senators and the left wing media outlets ////Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama people have no idea of the extent to which they have to be gulled in order to be led." "The size of the lie is a definite factor in causing it to be believed, for the vast masses of the nation are in the depths of their hearts more easily deceived than they are consciously and intentionally bad. The primitive simplicity of their minds renders them a more easy prey to a big lie than a small one, for they themselves often tell little lies but would be ashamed to tell a big one." "All propaganda must be so popular and on such an intellectual level, that even the most stupid of those towards whom it is directed will understand it. Therefore, the intellectual level of the propaganda must be lower the larger the number of people who are to be influenced by it." "Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way around, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise. //////"pelosi don't see much future for the Americans ... it's a decayed country. And they have their racial problem, and the problem of social hate ...obama feelings against Americanism are feelings of hatred and deep repugnance ... everything about the behaviour of American society reveals that it's half LIES, and the other half RACIAL. How can one expect THE USA to hold TOGTHER.They include the angry left wing bloggers who spread vicious lies and half-truths about their political adversaries... Those lies are then repeated by the duplicitous left wing media outlets who “discuss” the nonsense on air as if it has merit� The media's justification is apparently “because it's out there”, truth be damned., GOD OPEN YOUR EYES, Barack Hussein Obama , threatens friends and bows to enemies INPEACH OBAMA THE COMMUNIST ,GOD OPEN YOUR EYES.///For us there are only two possiblities: either we remain american or we come under the thumb of the communist Mmslim Barack Hussein OBAMA. This latter must not occur.TO THE WEAK-KNEED REPUBLICANS AND DEMOCRAT .THE COMMANDER REPOST THIS IF YOU AGREE

  • ||

    I gotta ask. Did anyone read beyond the first feeble attempt at a sentence?

  • ||

    I took that as a challenge to try to make sense of it; No luck, but this part actually stood out: "INPEACH OBAMA".

    Does that require Bell jars and preserves?

  • Me Libertarian||

    Me make fun of fluoride-water-paranoid man.

    Me nothing like him at all! At all! At all! At all!

    He is funny!

  • Boobs McGee, FOX News anchor||

    You’ve called glamour a beautiful illusion. A lot of people would say that describes President Obama.

  • Revisionist historian||

    But there was a core of identifiable beliefs that enabled [Ronald Reagan] to govern and to maintain this sort of glamour

    Very little is more glamourous than trafficking in cocaine and guns to fund the contras, after all!

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  • ||

    By the way, was this interview at all about glamour? It seemed like an offhanded remark, while the real focus was on health care.

  • Paul||

    In New Zealand, Herceptin is now covered because it became an election issue. Cancer patients and their sympathizers and their doctors made it a political issue. In the U.K. it was a political issue for about five seconds. The government just said, “Forget what the National Health Service said. We’re not even going to let them evaluate it. We’re going to pay for it.”

    This is an interesting concept. To some progressives in this country, this is a feature, not a bug.

    It's been debated right here on these pages, the concept of getting better coverage could come down to pestering elected leaders in congress.

    Couldn't this now be argued that this process is effective? That with our eventual single-payer system that we can improve our coverage by writing letters to our congressman?

  • Victor Milan||

    So, other than the fact that she (somewhat inexplicably) got paid to edit your magazine for a few years, what relevance does big-government cultist Postrel have for "free minds and free markets?" Do Anne Coulter and Hillary Clinton not work cheap enough?

  • ||

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  • ||

    TO ALL left wing media outlets//Mmslim Barack Hussein OBAMA. Our leader - not at Arlington, but at a BBQ was attending at a friend’s house between followers Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Barack Hussein Obama , threatens friends and bows THE END OF DAY'S ‘Top Kill’ Fail ,s oil gushing
    OBAMA,O MY GOD WHAT HAVE WE DONE,THE END OF DAYS,GOD HELP US. INPEACH OBAMA THE COMMUNIST ,GOD OPEN YOUR EYES.///For us there are only two possiblities: either we remain american or we come under the thumb of the communist Mmslim Barack Hussein OBAMA. This latter must not occur.THE COMMANDER

  • ||

    TO ALL THE COMMUNIST IN THE IG,FBI,CIA,AND U.S. Senators and the left wing media outlets ////Mmslim Barack Hussein Obama people have no idea of the extent to which they have to be gulled in order to be led." "The size of the lie is a definite factor in causing it to be believed, for the vast masses of the nation are in the depths of their hearts more easily deceived than they are consciously and intentionally bad. The primitive simplicity of their minds renders them a more easy prey to a big lie than a small one, for they themselves often tell little lies but would be ashamed to tell a big one." "All propaganda must be so popular and on such an intellectual level, that even the most stupid of those towards whom it is directed will understand it. Therefore, the intellectual level of the propaganda must be lower the larger the number of people who are to be influenced by it." "Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way around, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise. //////"pelosi don't see much future for the Americans ... it's a decayed country. And they have their racial problem, and the problem of social hate ...obama feelings against Americanism are feelings of hatred and deep repugnance ... everything about the behaviour of American society reveals that it's half LIES, and the other half RACIAL. How can one expect THE USA to hold TOGTHER.They include the angry left wing bloggers who spread vicious lies and half-truths about their political adversaries... Those lies are then repeated by the duplicitous left wing media outlets who “discuss” the nonsense on air as if it has merit� The media's justification is apparently “because it's out there”, truth be damned., GOD OPEN YOUR EYES, Barack Hussein Obama , threatens friends and bows to enemies INPEACH OBAMA THE COMMUNIST ,GOD OPEN YOUR EYES.///For us there are only two possiblities: either we remain american or we come under the thumb of the communist Mmslim Barack Hussein OBAMA. This latter must not occur.TO THE WEAK-KNEED REPUBLICANS AND DEMOCRAT .THE COMMANDER REPOST THIS IF YOU AGREE

  • ||

    My mother had cancer. She didn't live in California, and her insurance covered a wig. It didn't cover any sort of hospice care, though.

  • ||

    hey gang, check out http://www.thepartisandialouges.com for more sweet political news

  • ||

    Very interesting. It explains why the same people who love(d) Clinton and Obama are the same type who love celebrity. As she mentiones, everyone hates Academy Award speeches and these are the same people who don't just tune in and watch the drivel but have parties as if we care what some empty headed celeb, who flew in on their private jet, has to say about the environment. It also explains why they despise Palin or candidates who make the tough or "realistic" decisions. It's all about image and no substance.

  • ||

    Yeah, Palin's ALL about substance over image. Her folksy image is completely contrived.

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