Political Hay

Obama’s Tank Ride

Will Hope jump the shark overseas?

By 7.21.08

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Barack Obama's handlers had obviously wanted the candidate's appearance in Germany to invoke comparisons to presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Yet their original choice of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate -- venue of Reagan's historic 1987 "tear down this wall" speech -- was rejected by Germans who noted that Obama is merely a candidate, rather than an actual president, and objected to the Democrat's appropriation of their symbol of national unity for a political campaign event.

Foiled in their original quest for an iconic backdrop, Team Obama accepted as an alternative speech location the plaza adjoining the Siegessaule ("Victory Column") about a mile west of the Brandenburg Gate. Alas for the apostles of Hope, the symbolism of this site has proven "problematic," as a spokesman for Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats told Der Spiegel.

History-minded Germans point out that the Siegessaule was erected to commemorate Prussia's 19th-century victories over Austria, France and Denmark. Furthermore, the current location of the monument was chosen by none other than Adolf Hitler, as part of his ambitious plans for the architectural renovation of the German capital.

Team Obama's difficulty in finding a suitable site for his Berlin speech is unlikely to get much attention from the TV news anchors traveling with the candidate this week. Yet it highlights the fundamental problem of Obama overseas excursion: It is a purely symbolic gesture from a campaign that increasingly seems more interested in symbols than substance.

IF THE BRAIN TRUST at Hope HQ can't be bothered to study German history, perhaps they should try thinking of Obama in terms of TV history.

In 1977, when the 1950s-themed comedy Happy Days was in its fourth season, the writers were constantly seeking new ways to highlight the show's popular bad-boy character Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli.

Originally a peripheral character in the program in which Ron Howard reprised his starring role in the 1973 hit film American Graffiti, Henry Winkler as the Fonz quickly upstaged his co-stars to become a cultural icon on Happy Days.

The show's writers soon turned Fonzie into an all-purpose plot device, a sort of deus ex machina in a leather coat. And it was in this capacity that, in the climax of a special three-episode sequence in 1977, Fonzie performed his famous ski-jump over a shark tank.

"Jump the shark" has since entered the lexicon to describe that inevitable point at which any pop-culture phenomenon becomes absurdly passe and begins to decline -- a watershed that Obama's presidential campaign may cross before he returns from his weeklong overseas itinerary.

Before Obama's departure, Charles Krauthammer asked of the Democrat's desire to speak at the Brandenburg Gate, "Who is Obama representing? And what exactly has he done in his lifetime to merit appropriating the Brandenburg Gate as a campaign prop?"

Noting other evidence of Obama's "elevated opinion of himself" -- including last month's flap over the candidate's personalized presidential seal -- Krauthammer asked whether there has "ever been a presidential nominee with a wider gap between his estimation of himself and the sum total of his lifetime achievements?"

PUBLIC CONSIDERATION of such questions will likely increase due to the lavish media attention Obama's foreign venture has attracted. He took the news anchors of all three major broadcast networks with him, ensuring a week of saturation coverage and causing many to note the media's apparent infatuation with the Democrat.

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz observed on his CNN "Reliable Sources" program Sunday that none of the network anchors chose to travel with Republican Sen. John McCain on any of his three foreign trips since he clinched the GOP nomination. The media, Kurtz said, "seem to me to be covering Obama as if he were already president."

Such excessive coverage could be enough in itself to cause a backlash, but Obama faces an enormous risk should he commit a faux pas on foreign soil. Calling the trip an "overseas gamble," Jeff Greenfield of CBS said the presence of so many reporters in Obama's entourage "makes the possibility of a misstep that much more dangerous."

And what, after all, is the purpose of his international tour? John McCormick of the Chicago Tribune called it an "effort to look presidential on the world stage," while CNN said it was "aimed at bolstering his foreign policy credentials." Furthermore, many in Europe have apparently succumbed to Obamamania, and the Democrat's campaign team clearly hopes that televised scenes of cheering foreign crowds will convey the idea that their candidate can restore U.S. prestige abroad.

CAN A POLITICIAN'S "foreign policy credentials" be boosted by a single week of travel? Will the sight of a Democrat surrounded by adoring Europeans automatically translate into increased popularity among American voters? This seems to be the belief of Obama's handlers.

If they're right, this week's excursion will finally create a decisive shift in public opinion toward Obama, ending the stagnant period of narrow- to-nonexistent leads he's shown in recent national polls.

On the other hand, if his media-saturated sojourn produces no definite and enduring gain in the polls, Team Obama may look back on this trip as a costly waste of time, money and effort that might better have been expended campaigning back home.

In the worst-case scenario -- a gaffe or blunder that exposes the Democrat to criticism or ridicule -- this overseas odyssey could go down in history as Obama's equivalent of that fateful 1988 tank ride by Michael Dukakis.

While Obama has far more charm than Dukakis, what made the image of Dukakis in that tank so potent was that it showed the Democrat straining to seem what he so obviously was not -- a credible candidate for Commander-in-Chief. It was the transparent phoniness of the gesture that hurt.

Often described as a political "rock star," Obama has benefited thus far from the kind of celebrity treatment more becoming a pop-culture sensation than a mere politician.

Pop fads have a way of suddenly fading, however, even in their moment of triumph. Fonzie cleared the shark tank, after all. Obama might not be so lucky.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.