Sometime around the beginning of this year I pondered the similarities between Conan O’Brien and President Barack Obama (and teased an upcoming blog post on the subject via Twitter). With Conan’s new show premiering on TBS tonight, following the Republican tidal wave that swept into congress last week, and in doing so affixing a bold question mark onto Obama’s presidency, it seems like there’s no better time to finally revisit the parallel. This comparison is perhaps more relevant, and possibly more darkly prescient, than ever.
When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 a collective sigh of relief escaped young voters across the country. Actually, it was less a sigh of relief and more of a giddy shout. Hope had won out. Yes we could. We had a charismatic leader, the sexiest president since JFK, who was certain to reverse the damage done by eight years under George W. Bush’s tyrannical reign. And just like how JFK utilized his good looks and immense charm to capture the nation’s heart in the first televised presidential debate, badly outshining a sweaty, swarthy Richard Nixon, Obama used new media, most notably the internet, in a way no President had before. He was a star for sure, but in a way we had never seen. He galvanized the young, tech savvy populace, the early adopters who proclaimed their support on their Facebook and MySpace pages. MTV had been encouraging late teens and twenty-somethings to Rock the Vote for many years, but in that election we truly had a rock star to endorse. We were fed up with the Bush regime, with Republican rule, and we were energized, we were motivated, and we had Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan immigrant, as our shining ray of hope. And in that time it was a symbiotic relationship. Obama inspired the poor, the hungry, the unemployed and recent college graduate masses, and they banded together to have their voices heard, to provide Obama with the spirit and the mandate. He gave us hope, and we gave him our vote.
And then on that Tuesday night in November our prayers were answered. Celebrations erupted on the streets of Williamsburg, citizens went wild in Chicago, and Hawaii cheered their native son. We had won. We had our guy. And he would lead us to the promised land.
And then we went to bed, slept off the buzz from the beers, and eventually the emotional high of the moment wore off as well. We left Obama to fulfill his promise, and his promises.
And that right there, is much of the reason that the House of Representatives reverted to Republican control last week, and why the country has the same general malaise mixed with disgust laced with frustration that it exhibited under W. Certainly, Obama has had his missteps. Ignoring, or at least giving the appearance of ignoring, the epically brutal economy in order to force through a health care bill was an obvious, terrible mistake (IT’S THE ECONOMY STUPID!). And he demonstrated very little of the vim or the vigor that was his trademark during the ’08 campaign. But I’ll leave the analysis of his decisions and progress to more informed journalists. What interests me is something that was out of his hands, and something that I don’t think is the result of a somewhat underwhelming first two years.
And that thing is that the unprecedented support that Obama enjoyed up to his election has virtually disappeared. And this basically happened immediately after his inauguration, if not on the Wednesday morning after he secured the presidency. When he was declared the winner on that November night, many people wept tears of joy, offered jovial hugs and optimistic, ecstatic high fives. But us? We didn’t feel relief, but pressure. We had gotten what we wanted. But we knew that was when the real hard part began. Because if Obama failed, then it was going to be a spectacular, devastating failure. And those young, motivated, politically active voters might be left jaded beyond repair.
But instead of maintaining our fervent support, we dispatched Obama to do the work alone. The “Hope” buttons were put away, the “Yes We Can” signs taken down, the “Obama-Biden” bumper stickers allowed to wither and fade. It was as if we believed he would stroll into the White House, wave his magic wand or crinkle his nose and we’d all have jobs, universal healthcare would be a reality, gays could marry, women could abort and Muslims were coming over for dinner. We expected it to all happen so easily, so effortlessly. We had done our part, elevated Barry Obama to office. Now he was going to save the country. But without that same level of support that was so deafening before the election, or at least something that approximated it, Obama’s task was even more enormous, if not insurmountable. It might not be fair to say that we turned our backs on the President, but once he stepped into the Oval Office, we did put down our megaphones, quiet our blogs and cease the political action. So it’s not surprising then, that two years later, Obama looks ten years older, and the grass isn’t so green on this side.
So what does all of this have to do with Conan O’Brien? Well, all you have to do is look at the “I’m With Coco” poster designed and deployed almost immediately after the news broke of the Tonight Show drama, as the image is similar, if not an overt reference, to Shepherd Fairey’s now iconic Obama “Hope” poster. When the Team Coco drawing hit the masses (instantaneously breaking everywhere), Entertainment Weekly‘s PopWatch had this observation: “LA-based designer Mike Mitchell‘s ‘I’m with Coco‘ poster has reached levels of ubiquity we haven’t seen since Shepard Fairey took on Obama.” The post also mentioned Facebook’s “I’m With Coco” fan site. During this time, as you probably recall, Facebook profiles were awash with Coco images, and the internet was flooded with Team Coco enthusiasm, and this blog spent much of its time discussing the seismic late night shifts. Like Obama two years before, Conan became the darling of the Internet. And then the campaign spilled out of the Web and onto the streets, as hundreds of people rallied outside of Conan’s studio in LA (in the rain no less! In LA!). Except for the fact that people were protesting NBC’s treatment of Conan O’Brien, it was a political rally. People, specifically, young, tech savvy, liberals, were announcing their outrage, both through their traditional channels of the Facebook and Twitter, and through more unorthodox (for them) tactics like physical protest and public demonstration. It was a level of public outcry and support not seen since, well, 2008 and Barack Obama. One was a half-black Senator running for President, the other was a pale Irish comedian being forced out of his show, but they were basically one the in same, at least in the support that rose up around them (and with that in mind we urge to read Michael Ian Black’s blog post from this time, as he points out that, while active participation is great, perhaps Conan O’Brien is not the cause to which we should have been devoting our greatest energies). There’s no denying that Barack Obama and Conan O’Brien became symbols, that they became something bigger than themselves, even if they were somewhat false prophets. Barack Obama was the only politician who could drum up the same enthusiasm, manic fandom, as a TV star, and two years later Conan O’Brien, somewhat surprisingly, proved he had the influence and adulation of a President. It’s a fascinating parallel.Vodpod videos no longer available.
But then here’s the other (possible) parallel. First, we should point out (as we did last January), that perhaps O’Brien would not have ever been in that spot in the first place if those same people who came out in droves to show their support just watched his show before it was in danger. But now that he’s many months removed from NBC that argument is moot. However, with Conan set to debut mere hours from now, we can wonder if the same fate that has tempered Obama will befall O’Brien. Obama rode into office on a before unseen level of support, of public admiration, of hope. But that wave of enthusiasm soon dried up. O’Brien, like Obama, morphed into a rock star, touring the country this past summer and literally wailing his guitar in front of screaming fans. And tonight O’Brien will stroll out onto his new stage on the Warner Bro. lot in Burbank and perform his string dance to a rousing standing ovation. And the rabid applause will undoubtedly continue for weeks. But, at some point, that might disappear as well. Conan, like Barack, has been handed the keys to the kingdom, has been bestowed with the opportunity to do things his way, coasting in on a cloud of good will and god-like worship. But for how long?
It might not matter how funny Conan turns out to be, how hilarious a liberated, scorned Conan O’Brien proves. Because if the audience abandons him then how will they ever know? Earlier this year we traded in Obama for O’Brien. Whose to say that now that we’ve gotten what we wanted our wandering eye won’t turn elsewhere, that we won’t find another idol? Conan will have weeks of love and affection, but there’s no guarantee it’ll last. And if Obama is any indication, it won’t. And meanwhile, on the opposite coast, a beaten President Obama struggles to turn it all around, attempting to recover from a disappointing, crushing mid-term election that was seen as a referendum on his presidency. Hoping, still, to fulfill his promise and promises. Unfortunately, it looks like he has to do it alone.
Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.
Good luck, Conan. We’ll be watching. For a little while, at least.