As Shakespeare put it, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
To that list of possibilities, President Obama’s detractors can now add: “and some piggyback on the greatness of others.”
Footnotes added to presidential biographies on the White House website are giving conservatives new fodder for one of their favorite narratives — Obama’s unchained ego.
From Calvin Coolidge on, the Obama White House added information connecting the achievements of past presidents to the one currently in office. Only Gerald Ford has been spared a helpful “Did you know?” Obama plug.
The Coolidge biography notes that he became the first president to make a public radio address to the American people and helped create the Federal Radio Commission. But enough about Cal. In the spirit of social media, it’s me, me, me. President Obama, the footnotes add, “became the first president to hold virtual gatherings and town halls using Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, etc.” It’s hard to be modest, when a magazine cover puts a halo over your head.
At the bottom of the Franklin D. Roosevelt biography, the added notation reads: “On Aug. 14, 1935, President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act. Today the Obama administration continues to protect seniors and ensure Social Security will be there for future generations.” President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Medicare law is connected to Obama’s “historic health care reform law.” President John F. Kennedy’s creation of the Peace Corps is connected to Obama’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps by Presidential Proclamation.
In making the connection to Republican presidents, the Obama White House sometimes struggles to find innocuous common ground.
President Dwight Eisenhower is cited for establishing the President’s Council on Fitness, which is linked to Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative. The live Internet broadcasting of President George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech is linked to Obama’s “enhanced live stream version that featured infographics, charts, and data side-by-side in real time.”
The linking of President Reagan’s call for a fairer tax code to Obama’s “calling for the same with the Buffett rule” is more ideological and controversial, given that Obama’s push for higher taxes on higher incomes is opposed by Republicans in Congress.
Conservative bloggers quickly blasted the footnotes, and started a Twitter hashtag, #ObamainHistory, to ridicule Obama as a Woody Allen “Zelig”-type character. The Republican National Committee has a Tumblr page — “Obama in History — World Changing Events You Didn’t Know Obama Played a Part In.” It features photos of Obama lecturing with Einstein, leading troops across the Delaware, and standing with Elvis and Richard Nixon, The Beatles and Ed Sullivan, and John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy.
Text on the site reads “In this White House, it’s all about ‘The One.’ ” It’s illustrated by a photo of Obama looking at a reflection of himself in a mirror. Obama’s critics will vehemently deny it, but the subtext “uppity” comes to mind.
An unnamed White House official told The New York Times the idea behind the additional footnotes was to encourage people to browse more pages on the site, and linking is surely part of the web experience. But there is something a little silly, even sad, about Obama’s image-shapers trying to promote him through the deeds of past presidents.
Politically, it’s a bad idea; it allows opponents to revive their critiques of Obama as narcissist-in-chief, as they mirthfully resurrect old Obama lines, like “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
The image of Obama, the cool celebrity president, is wearing thin anyway, especially up against a Republican rival who is selling dorkiness as a virtue. At this point, voters do not need to think of Obama as part of a continuum of modern American presidents. They need to think of him as the president who stared down dark economic crisis, and made history of his own by dealing with it as bravely and effectively as he could, even as Republicans worked overtime to undermine him.
During the Obama years, the GOP put selfish political agenda ahead of country. In that sense, Republicans are the true narcissists. But the president gains nothing but grief from this misguided PR effort to link his accomplishments to his predecessors’.
To borrow another quote, pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.