Zito: President’s celebrity status should not excuse bad policy

Sarcastically saying “Thanks, Obama” when something minor goes wrong has been a popular joke online for quite a while. President Barack Obama himself recently joined in on the Internet joke.

To the delight of many young people, the president dunked a too-big cookie into a too-small cup on BuzzFeed’s “Things Everyone Does But Doesn’t Talk About” and muttered, “Thanks, Obama.” If Franklin D. Roosevelt was the radio president and John F. Kennedy was the television president, Obama is the Internet president. The Internet is an accessible medium and it allows the president to reach out to young people.

He is not only using a powerful tool of communication, however—he’s also targeting the specific culture of young people. Whether it is Obama himself or a member of his public relations staff, the Barack Obama Internet brand targets the youth demographic clearly and effectively.

Presidents seem to fill two roles: that of a national symbol or celebrity and that of the head of one of the most powerful countries in the world. When a group is being aggressively targeted by a presidential administration––as in the case of the Obama administration targeting young people––this group will often feel an affinity towards the politician in question that goes beyond an ideological agreement with his policies.

While this problem is neither limited to the Internet nor this generation, it is something important to keep in mind. Excessively appealing to a young demographic might cause young people to refrain from questioning the president’s actions, which could have very negative consequences.

This problem is not only caused by our president’s use of the Internet to appeal to youth. The seemingly binary nature of politics in the United States also contributes to a political culture in which people with complex or radical views are often forced to settle for the “lesser of two evils” or to not vote at all.

Additionally, because most critics of Obama are conservatives, it seems that one must either be a conservative or an Obama supporter. This is not true. There are plenty of individuals who fall further left on the political spectrum than either of the two parties, and it is possible to engage in criticism of Obama that is not based in a conservative perspective.

For example, Obama’s foreign policy frequently comes under attack by groups who are anything but conservative. Many critics, for instance, point out that drone warfare claims approximately 28 innocent lives for every one target––a policy that Obama supports. While our two-party system puts voters in a difficult position, one can still avoid glorifying the “lesser of two evils” candidate as a celebrity and remain critical of their actions.

This is not an attack on President Obama as an individual, nor is it a condemnation of young people as a whole, as this problem extends far beyond our generation. Rather, it is an urge to discourage the image of politicians as celebrities.

It is important to be critical of anyone in a position of power, even—or perhaps especially—if they are charming and likable. It will not be easy to overcome the two-party system that has trapped the United States, but it possible to refrain from responding to these PR tactics in a way that spreads the image of any politician as a celebrity instead of a powerful policy creator.

One may agree that Obama is preferable to the conservative alternative, but still take issue with and perhaps even protest drone warfare. This critical thinking and subsequent action cannot happen, however, if this person views President Obama as a larger than life being who can do no wrong. Allowing clever PR tricks that target young voters only encourages this dangerous mindset.