Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Obama and the Premediated Presidency

Caroline Maun perceptively asks below if I am theorizing the premediated presidency.  Yes, we can.  I may do this in more detail in the conclusion to my book, but for now a quick sketch.

First, presidential campaigns are inevitably exercises in premediation. Campaign promises are not predictions; they are not contracts; they are not promises in a strict sense.  What they are (along with platforms and policy statements) are premediations of what a potential future might look like under, say, a McCain or an Obama presidency.  These promises are fluid--they respond to the exigencies of a long campaign.  They are, one might say, virtual promises, or premediated promises of the kinds of presidency that might be brought about. Like other premediations, campaign promises and platforms work to prepare the public to be ready for the laws, policies, and presidential decisions that will follow the election of a new president.

The Obama campaign understood the nature of electoral premediation in a much more detailed and complex manner than did the McCain campaign. Indeed, one might even say that Obama's election was a result of his furnishing a much more successful premediation of an Obama presidency than the McCain campaign was able to muster of a McCain presidency. From the get-go Obama decided to appear presidential--to assume the mantle of the presidency even before he had won the Democratic nomination.  The famous kerfuffle over the pseudo-presidential seal might have been a case of going to far--but it was emblematic of the Obama strategy to premediate an Obama presidency as a strategy for getting elected president.  

Obama understood, as well, that premediation involved the deployment of mediality as a way to shape and modulate the electorate's affectivity.  "My Barack Obama" and the extraordinary use of mobile social networking software enabled the Obama campaign both to create an affect of "hope" and "change" among his supporters but also provided the tools for his supporters to appropriate those tools to provide affective collectivities that supported the goals of the campaign. Obama's major speeches, too, both during the primary campaign and on election night, were similarly presidential, presenting him rhetorically and affectively as if he were already president.  

This premediated presidency has only intensified in this unusual (but also ordinary) period between the election and the inauguration. What makes this ordinary transition period unusual in this case is in part the intensity of the financial crisis that the nation (and its next president) faces; this crisis contributes to the intensity of the premediated presidency. Even before the election, Obama and McCain were positioned as virtual presidents in their response to the potential end of finance capitalism that reached crisis stage in September. 

Now that the nation knows who will succeed Bush, the pressure to premediate how the Obama administration would address the financial crisis is even greater than during the campaign. Indeed, through his skillful deployment of print, televisual, and networked media, Obama is attempting to manipulate the economy through premediation--which is at this point the most powerful weapon he has.  Even working with a Democratic-controlled Congress has serious limitations, as any legislation that gets passed must be signed off on by Bush.  So Obama orchestrates his transition announcements thoughtfully and with confidence--using the tools of the media (leaks, interviews, press conferences, bloggers, etc.) to try to reassure the public and the financial markets that an Obama presidency will bring better days ahead.

Given the snarky Republican references to Obama as the chosen one, the next messiah, it is worth noting the affinities between this transitional time and what Giorgio Agamben characterizes (following Paul) as "the time that remains"--the time between the announcement of the messiah and the commencement of messianic time. For Agamben this temporal space is the space of the coming community, the space of promise or hope.  

I'll end for now by suggesting that we are, in relation to the premediated Obama presidency, precisely in this messianic moment, awaiting the community to come.  Of course, Obama is not the messiah and messianic time will not begin on 1/20/09.  Which means that, in some sense, it is this moment before the election that is bound to be the most promising of the Obama presidency, the moment that premediates the time that is to come.  When the Obama presidency does come, Obama's best strategy would be to continue to premediate the community to come, to try to maintain his presidency as a continuation of the time that remains, a continuation of the promise of messianic time. At its worst, however, the Obama presidency will transform itself into business as usual, a presidency like all others that brings us back not to this interesting moment of the time that remains but to the daily temporality of the Washington grind that has worn us all down during the increasingly dismal second term of George W. Bush.   


Ken said...

I don't know that it matters much to your point about Obama, but for Agamben and Paul "messianic" time actually begins with the Christ event: the death and resurrection. It is the time that we live in, the time that remains, while we wait for the second coming (parousia). The concept is a political necessity for the apostle who has to explain (to the Corinthians and others) why -- if the event has happened -- everything is still the same. Paul's answer is that we live in "the time that remains", messianic time, and that we should live "as if" (hos me) everything has not changed. There is something in that as a political strategy for Obama when he will have to be explaining why things haven't changed after Jan. 20.

Richard Grusin said...

Thanks, Ken. I didn't check the text so wasn't sure I had gotten it right. Basically, then, I would say that messianic time begins with the election of Obama. Yes, his most ardent followers may expect 1/20/09 to mark the second coming, but as you suggest, we will most likely continue to live in the time that remains, which may be even more than "as if" nothing has changed.

Caroline Maun said...

I think that your point, though, that Obama's best strategy is to continue to generate ahead of him an atmosphere of hope/change through skillful use of the media is a very good one. Also premediated in the last month is the exit of Bush with his very low profile and hands-off leadership during the financial collapse. There is a strange disconnect between activities like attending the Army-Navy game and unveiling the portrait and what must really be one of the first orders of business for an outgoing president -- checking the pardon list twice.