Is Obama Real?

Studying the phenomenon of a simulated president.

A little over a decade before anyone had heard of Barack Obama, cyberpunk author William Gibson already had his number, as it were. The novel was called Idoru (“idol” in Japanese) and told the story of a holographic emanation, an entirely virtual media star projected upon an adoring world. As Rolling Stone put it in a review, “Gibson envisions a future in which the lines between the virtual and the actual are terminally blurred. How ‘real’ are today’s celebrities?”

There’s no doubt that the world’s “greatest” celebrity creation is Barack Obama, an idol who mesmerized the American public and much of the West besides, drawing enormous crowds wherever he went, inspiring millions upon millions of mindless infatuates who regarded him as the answer to all the world’s problems. People gazed upon him and swooned over his pectorals or felt tingles crawling up their legs. Others thought a god had arisen in their midst. He was the savior, the messiah, “The One” who would resolve the world’s most intractable conflicts, who would roll back the seas, who would introduce transparency into American politics, and who would bring harmony and wisdom, hope and change, to a distracted electorate.

Two years have passed and the shine has faded. Every initiative that the American idoru has undertaken has generated only controversy and failure. Add to the record of his blunders and hesitations the fact of his shrouded identity, anemic CV and playboy-like behavior, and we have a veritable enigma on our hands. Does he fly under or over the radar? The then-senator who constantly voted “present” seems as president disturbingly absent, junketing about the planet, shooting endless rounds of golf, practicing his jump shot, warbling at parties, sipping slurpies.

Worse, when it comes to issues of major significance, Obama cannot seem to make up his mind about anything. Taking a reasoned, consistent and principled position seems beyond his means. Rather, he is prone, to quote T.S. Eliot from The Hollow Men, to “behaving as the wind behaves.” Is he in or out of Afghanistan? Is he for the Ground Zero mosque or against? Does he admire or disapprove of his former pastor, America-hating Reverend Wright? Is he prosecuting terrorists in civil court or relying on military tribunals? Are the Articles of the Constitution to be observed or ignored? Is Congress to be circumvented or consulted in carrying out domestic and foreign policies, a question recently highlighted by his mobilizing the EPA to skirt legislative resistance to Cap and Trade or participating in the action against Muammar Gaddafi? For that matter, is he committed to the Libyan adventure or not? Is he pro-Israel, as he has often affirmed, or anti-Israel, as his conduct plainly suggests? Why does he support the so-called “democracy movement” in Egypt but not in Syria or Iran? If health care reform is meant to be universal, why have public sector unions been given exemptions and congressmen spared? Why do statements emerging from the White House often seem downright contradictory? These paradoxes, evasions and ambiguities can be multiplied indefinitely.

It is now obvious that Obama is all gaffe and guff. But the central question that troubles the mind is more profound. Why is it that, despite his larger-than-life media prominence and his appearing wherever we happen to look, he never seems to be there? As he himself wrote in The Audacity of Hope—assuming he is the author of the entire book and not, as Jack Cashill thinks, beholden to speechwriter Jon Favreau—“I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” Amir Taheri, writing in the New York Post, is distressed by Obama’s fluctuating and elusive nature. Commenting on Obama’s casting himself as a bridge between America and the Muslim world (Al-Arabiya TV, January 27, 2009), Taheri notes: “Obama appeared unsure of his own identity and confused about the role that America should play in global politics.”

In point of fact, Obama seems unsure of pretty well everything of importance, just as many of us have grown unsure about whether there is any substance at all behind the luminous façade thrust before us on screen or page or color supplement. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who developed the philosophical theory of the simulacrum in such books as Simulacra and Simulation and Simulations, defines one of its aspects as an image whose function is to mask the absence of a basic reality, to hide a vacancy. “It is no longer even a question of a false representation,” he writes, “but of concealing the truth that the real is no longer real.” In the mediatric age we now live in, we are steadily bombarded by “floating signifiers” that attach to nothing concrete. Baudrillard cites many examples of public and political hallucinations to which we are subject, which he labels “the precession of the simulacra,” but Obama is clearly the culmination of the process. He seems more like a collective hypothesis, an effigy permeable to the light, than a real person.

Studying the phenomenon of a simulated president, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish character from rhetoric, being from seeming, the man from the teleprompter. Indeed, we can take the question further. Is Obama real? Or is he the virtual creation of a group of spectral manipulators, of David Axelrod, George Soros, Bill Ayers and other tenebrous figures, who have combined their talents and resources to seize upon a mediocre legislator with no achievements to his credit and craft a glittering ectoplasm from pliable material in order to serve their political purposes—to produce, in effect, what Gibson calls a “consensual fantasy”? Is he merely, in Gibson’s terms, nothing but, “a personality-construct, a congeries of software agents, the creation of information-designers”? A Loki-like shape-shifter? A kind of synthespian?

It is hard to resist the conclusion that, for all the bewilderment he sows and the undeniable harm he does, Barack Obama does not exist. An idoru sits in the Oval Office and the only transparency he has brought to American politics is that we can see right through him.