Sunday, August 15, 2010

Shilling For Your Dollars ... And Votes

"[O]ne of the great goals of this nation's war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry. It's to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida."

George W. Bush
Sept. 21, 2001
O'Hare Airport, Chicago

I guess it's official now. Presidents don't lead anymore. They shill.

Do you remember, a little more than a week after the September 11 attacks, when George W. Bush was in Chicago, and he pleaded with Americans to travel to places like Disney World? The popular rhetoric of the time was aimed at encouraging Americans to spend their money on expensive jewelry, clothes, family vacations, etc. — because, if they didn't, the reasoning went, "the terrorists win."

The idea — and it truly was worthy of Madison Avenue — was that the attacks were all about capitalism and consumerism — the American way of life. And it was the natural extension of the Republicans' simplistic argument — "They hate us for who we are."

Such an assessment defied the only conclusion that could be reached after a logical review of the facts — but it did have a few things going for it. Primarily, it could be boiled down to a simple, memorable phrase that Americans could remember, like "don't ask don't tell" or "just say no."

Never mind that, only a few days before, as he was standing on the South Lawn of the White House, Bush warned that the war on terrorism — which he described, in an unfortunate word choice that conjured up medieval memories for those in the Muslim world, as a "crusade" — was "going to take a while."

On that day in Chicago in September 2001, Bush faced a crisis in the airline industry. Commercial airline travel had been shut down for three days after the terrorist attacks, which had been costly, but business had been shaky before the attacks, and it was really struggling after them.

After seeing the events of September 11 unfold, people were, understandably, jittery about air travel. The demand for tickets plummeted. Airlines were having to cancel flights.

Bush knew that air travel played a key role in economic activity, and he wasn't eager to let the airlines drag the rest of the economy down. So he shilled for the airlines. Things remained bad for the airlines for several months — there was so much unused jet fuel that, by the end of 2001, gas prices had fallen below $1/gallon for the first time in decades — but folks didn't blame Bush for that. It had been the work of those nasty old "evil–doers."

No matter how long it took to wage the war on terrorism, the airline industry — and all the related industries, like hotels and restaurants — needed a boost right away.

Say what you will about the Bush administration — and I've said and/or written most of it before — but he was light years ahead of his successor when it comes to self–serving photo ops.

He was a superior shill.

See, I feel I am witnessing the same kind of thing from the current occupant of the White House — only it has been far less competent. Some people see that as a plus — that Barack Obama is such an amateur at shilling — but the truth is that shilling has become perhaps the primary role of a president.

The Gulf of Mexico is huge. It is the ninth–largest body of water in the world. It took Hurricane Katrina nearly a week to cross it and make landfall in New Orleans. Contrary to what you might have imagined, the Gulf isn't one big oil slick.

That doesn't mean that three months of constant flow of crude oil into the waters of the Gulf didn't take their toll.

Certainly, the oil has created an environmental catastrophe that will be decades in repairing. People are staying away from the Gulf. The many Gulf businesses that depend on tourism are struggling, even if they are a great distance from the actual location of the oil spill — and the Florida Panhandle is not far. Many of the people there truly are suffering.

That suffering can't be blamed on the previous administration, but it's still a threat to the economy, and Obama seems to be intent on nipping it in the bud. Maybe he thinks there are still votes to be won for this November's midterm elections.

Oh, he warned everybody that there was a long slog ahead. "Our job is not finished," he said yesterday, promising that the work would go on until the job was done. It was meant to reassure the folks on the coast, whose jobs are now at risk because the tourists aren't flocking to the beaches — and who might be thinking about voting against the Democrats in November because they're tired and angry and frustrated and they need to lash out at someone.

I'm more inclined to think this is about 2012 than 2010 — unless Obama is still harboring fantasies about avoiding midterm losses this year.

And I don't believe he is naive enough to think that his constant slide in the polls can be reversed in time to make a difference in November.

Anyway, there was a lot of talk about how Obama and his daughter went for a dip in the Gulf of Mexico. But it wasn't seen by anyone who could verify it independently. CNN reports that no press cameras were on hand to record the symbolic swim, but, lucky us, the White House's photographers apparently were there.

Well, a photo of the president and his daughter in some water was promptly circulated. The non–verbal message? Come to the Gulf of Mexico. The water's fine. The food is great. The beaches are as white as sugar. Come to the Gulf and spend your money.

I hate to be a party pooper, but there is nothing in the picture that could possibly confirm where it was taken. Not to go all "Capricorn One" on you, but suspicious minds might surmise that the Obamas went ahead with their original plans to visit Martha's Vineyard, and that the picture was actually taken at one of the exclusive/private swimming holes in Massachusetts.

Water is water, right?

Now, why, you may ask, were no press reporters there? Obama had an answer for that. "I'm not going to let you guys take a picture of me with my shirt off," he said. "You guys will tease me just like last time. I was on the front page ... People commenting."

So the president wanted to help the Gulf economy — but he was sensitive about being teased. You know, most of us got over that when we were still in elementary school.

I'm not suggesting that this was staged. But photo ops that can be that easily questioned won't achieve their primary objective, which is to be of some benefit to the person(s) in the picture.

Just sayin' that the symbolic swim should have been witnessed by some folks who aren't on the White House payroll — because whoever arranged for this photo op really dropped the ball.

And maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me that the Obamas have tried to keep their children out of the spotlight whenever possible. And that really has seemed to be typical of all the presidential families in my lifetime. But this time, the president apparently had no trouble using one of his daughters as his prop.

Perhaps, in spite of his protests, he is influenced by polls, like the AP/GfK poll that shows Democrats losing the allegiance of independents, who played an important role in the sweeping Democratic triumphs of 2008.

Those voters, report Alan Fram and Trevor Tompson of the Associated Press, have shown "especially strong concerns about the economy, with 9 in 10 calling it a top problem and no other issue coming close." But they have seen little improvement and little indication that the administration is doing anything to create jobs or prevent further job losses.

Perhaps Obama feels some pressure to shill for those who depend on the sand and the sea of the Gulf for their livelihoods — because it's entirely possible that he is going to want their help in a couple of years.

No comments: