Friday, December 21, 2012

Person of the Year(s)


THE LAST TIME Barack Obama showed up on the cover of Time Magazine as Person of the Year, back in the halcyon day of 2008, it was an image that riffed on Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obama campaign HOPE poster: the face of a man who embodied the nation’s aspirations in ways that were patriotic, multicultural and a clean break with the past.

What a difference four years make. In a repeat appearance — only the eighth U.S. president to be so honored — President Obama graces the cover of the current issue of Time as Person of the Year 2012. But the new cover isn't saturated with the upbeat colors of Time's POY cover of 2008; the Obama 2012 image, by the celebrated photographer Nadav Kander, is more circumspect, restrained, muted almost to the point of being monochromatic.

The intervening four years tell the story of the difference between the two images, and explain why, the singular achievements of others notwithstanding, Obama was the only real choice.

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Time’s recognition confirms what we’ve lived for some time: that Barack Obama has been, for the last year and the previous three, the indispensable American, and indispensable in ways that are less about the office he holds than the man he is.

The four years of the Obama administration have seen change as conceived and advanced by the Obama White House, on a broad array of fronts, from health care to marriage equality, from ending the war in Iraq to boosting fuel efficiency standards, from passing Wall Street reform to resuscitating the U.S. auto industry, from taking out Osama bin Laden to reversing the hemorrhage of American jobs and a downward spiral of home values.

But this year Team Obama also benefited from things beyond its control (or anyone’s): a woeful circus of Republican opponents nobody saw coming; a politically tone-deaf Republican nominee; a popular exhaustion with prohibitions of the past, including marriage inequality and marijuana criminalization; and the fullest flowering of a new demographic coalition, a body of younger, smarter, multi-hued, technologically savvy Americans of which President Obama is the avatar.

Richard Stengel, Time’s managing editor, writes: “There has been much talk of the coalition of the ascendant — young people, minorities, Hispanics, college-educated women — and in winning re-election, Obama showed that these fast-growing groups are not only the future but also the present. About 40% of millennials — the largest generational cohort in U.S. history, bigger even than the baby boomers — are nonwhite. If his win in 2008 was extraordinary, then 2012 is confirmation that demographic change is here to stay.”

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THE PLAYWRIGHT Arthur Miller, in a fine 1972 essay on the George McGovern presidential campaign, once observed: “Democracy is first of all a state of feeling. A nominee, and later a president, is not a sort of methodical lawyer hired to win a client’s claim but an ambiguously symbolic figure upon whom is projected the conflicting desires of an audience.”

On Sunday, Jan. 20, President Obama will take the oath of office as both the symbol of those “conflicting desires” and the beneficiary of them. The crosscurrents of the national life are as turbulent now as they’ve been in our lifetimes, and more so than they were in 2008. But the president retakes the helm of the greatest and most reliably participatory democracy on earth as the first of his party in generations — since FDR — to win the presidency with more than 50 percent of the popular vote twice. He’s also the first since FDR to do this with (or despite) an unemployment rate above 7.5 percent.

What Time’s selection of the president as Person of the Year seems to recognize, as much as his signal accomplishments, is his ability to ride these countervailing forces; his unique sense of control and deliberation; and his ability to communicate steady-as-it-goes, even when (or especially when) the going is anything but steady. That’s a temperament that leaps out at you in the image on the new Time cover. That’s a quality he’s transmitted to the nation from the beginning — not one year ago, but four.

Image credits: Time Person of the Year covers 2008 and 2012: © 2008, 2012 Time Inc. Obama HOPE poster 2008: Shepard Fairey. 

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