Politics As Theater

ALeqM5he1YSDQvP8LISERfnThKAYJ7TqFQ Last week, Maureen Dowd wrote that Obama hasn't been doing enough to appear angry about the oil spill. He needed to making more angry faces. She said that he looked beleaguered, rather than commanding. "Obama wanted to be a transformative president and now the presidency is transforming him…. Instead of buoyant, he seems put upon. Instead of the fairy dust of hopefulness, there’s the bitter draught of helplessness."

A couple of days later, Obama canceled his trip to Indonesia and complained that the pundits were all wrong. He WAS doing stuff. He said to Matt Lauer, "this is not theater." This sentiment was echoed around the blogosphere who mocked Dowd for dumbing down politics. 

But you know what? Politics IS theater. Appearances matter. They always have. Machiavelli explained that a good prince had to tread an important line between action and appearance. Presidents, like princes, have to appear strong, confident, and commanding. Power is fragile. It is based on appearances, as well as actual action.

People hate that BP CEO, Tony Haywood. They want him publicly flogged. They want to see images of Obama wading through polluted shores. 

Obama was slow to figure this out. He's going to have to make up for lost time. A lot of people will be tuning into his oval office speech tonight.

7 thoughts on “Politics As Theater

  1. I hope we can agree (if not be happy) that there is a theatrical element to politics and still think that Maureen Dowd dumbs down everything she considers and deserves to be mocked. (This applies to other, too, of course, but she’s really awful. The world would truly be a better place if she’d go devote herself to lolcats or something.)


  2. Here’s what the statement “politics is theater” means to me: politics is so utterly devoid of content as to be nothing more than theater. It accomplishes nothing more than to entertain, and is incapable of accomplishing more.
    Appearances matter in many different areas of life. However one cannot lose sight of the fact that to be truly impactful appearances must be backed up by actual things — content, action, meaning.
    Sorry but if we have lost sight of the difference between theater and politics, IMHO that’s a Bad Thing. If we as a country truly don’t understand the difference between theater and real change brought about by politics, then we deserve our fate.


  3. I can read the phrase more positively than Jen — that it can mean that it isn’t enough to do the right thing, that you also have to convince the populace that it is the right thing, and make sure they know that the right thing is being done. But, to the extent that politics is theater, I trust Obama’s instincts about political theater far better than mine (or, Maureen Dowd’s, Iglesias’s, TPM’s, Huffington’s, . . . .).


  4. And, that doesn’t mean I consider Obama’s instincts infallible or that he might not make a mistake. I just think that he’s less likely to fail or make a mistake than any of the liberal pundits who find it necessary to remind him that he’s ignoring “political theater.” Maureen Dowd’s take on what “the people” want is pretty fallible (as is mine).


  5. Apparently, when politicians start to hang out with theater people, they start acting like actors. (Kind of a good sign actually. I’d hate to think I could blow the whole thing on a small screw-up after forty years.)


  6. As a work of theater, I’d say Obama’s speech showed great compassion for and command of the little details, and little moral vision of how it all comes together–that is, specifically, what “making sure a similar disaster never happens again” would and should really mean for the American people. As a speech, crazy as it may seem, he should have followed Carter’s example.


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