Obama Vs. McCain As Mac Vs. PC

The Obama campaign debuted this seal on the candidate's podium on June 20, 2008, but then retired it on June 23, 2008. AP

This column was written by Jim Geraghty.
It's extremely unlikely that Barack Obama and his campaign will get in legal trouble for featuring a revised version of the presidential seal. But like Michael Dukakis riding in a tank or John Kerry declaring that he voted for war funding before he voted against it, we may have just witnessed one of those unexpected moments that, in retrospect, comes to define one of the candidate's unflattering traits.

The decision to create the "Seal of Obomerica" seems like an almost deliberate response to Peggy Noonan's column about the difference between "Old America" and "New America," and how each party's candidate embodies one of the two. When President Bush speaks, the Obama campaign doesn't just want to change the rhetoric, the policies, and the man behind the lectern; apparently the seal seems a bit stodgy and old-fashioned for their tastes as well.

In November, we'll be hard-pressed to find a voter who says they voted for John McCain because some Obama staffer thought it would be a good idea to redesign the presidential seal, just as no one is going to vote against Obama because some overzealous volunteer made two women in headscarves move further away so they would be outside camera angles. (Of course, a third example of this," we need more white people! we need more white people!" will be a bigger story, because it will be a recurring pattern instead of one or two instances of bad judgment.)

But the fact that the someone on the campaign said some variation of, "Hey, let's have Obama speak with his own redesigned version of the seal," and that either no one objected or the objections were overruled - may become a symbol of hubris and disconnect on par with the candidate's litany of what motivates "bitter" small town voters during a fundraiser on Billionaire's Row in San Francisco earlier this year.

The Obama camp uses the word "change" more frequently than commas and perhaps in that constant repeating of the mantra they occasionally miss that a country yearning for change wants improvement, not change for the sake of change. What exactly was wrong with the presidential seal? The idea that a candidate and the people around him should deem it lacking, and that an upgrade would be an all-blue version that incorporates his campaign logo into the seal is… strange. The idea that no grownup was around to shake a head and say, 'you don't change the seal of the office you seek while on the campaign trail' furrows the brow. Perhaps most perplexingly, why use the Latin "yes we can" as a replacement for "E Pluribus Unum" (Out of Many, One)? Wasn't this campaign pledging to unite the country? Didn't this guy wow the political world with a debut speech that called for "no red states or blue states, but red white and blue states?"

The old vs. new theme in this year's matchup sometimes seems reminiscent of Apple Computer's often hilarious "Mac vs. PC" ads. While funny and likable as far as television commercials go, they didn't necessarily translate into higher sales at first. Slate's ad analyst Seth Stevenson hit on the problem:
My problem with these ads begins with the casting. As the Mac character, Justin Long (who was in the forgettable movie Dodgeball and the forgettabler TV show Ed) is just the sort of unshaven, hoodie-wearing, hands-in-pockets hipster we've always imagined when picturing a Mac enthusiast. He's perfect. Too perfect. It's like Apple is parodying its own image while also cementing it. If the idea was to reach out to new types of consumers (the kind who aren't already evangelizing for Macs), they ought to have used a different type of actor.

Meanwhile, the PC is played by John Hodgman - contributer to the Daily Show and This American Life, host of an amusing lecture series, and all-around dry-wit extraordinaire. Even as he plays the chump in these Apple spots, his humor and likability are evident. (Look at that hilariously perfect pratfall he pulls off in the spot titled "Viruses.") The ads pose a seemingly obvious question - would you rather be the laid-back young dude or the portly old dweeb? - but I found myself consistently giving the "wrong" answer: I'd much sooner associate myself with Hodgman than with Long.

Obviously, we're supposed to want to be the Mac guy, but I suspect a lot of consumers laugh because they relate to the PC - the world is changing too fast for him to keep up, he's so far from cutting edge that by the time he tries something it's obsolete, the cool crowd looks down on him, and some snot-nosed twenty-something who thinks he knows everything is ready to take his job. There's something Charlie Brownish about the PC - he tries hard, but it never seems to work out quite right. Of course, Charlie Brown is one of the most popular characters in the world.

Clearly, the ads have worked for Apple; they're in their third year. But note that Long's Mac character has shifted from boasting and bragging (reading his own great reviews in the Wall Street Journal, bringing out a supermodel to symbolize his home movie), to constantly expressing sympathy for his befuddled friend/rival - albeit in an irrepressibly condescending manner. In a 2007 ad entitled "Counselor" that depicts a joint therapy session, Mac says, "I don't know why you're so hard on yourself. . . . You are a wizard with numbers, and you dress like a gentleman." There is probably no clearer parallel to "You're likable enough, Hillary Clinton," in advertising.

McCain thankfully isn't making comical pratfalls like Hodgman's PC, but contrasted with Obama, he can't help but be defined as the de facto "old reliable." Obama is the Mac Guy: young, brimming with coolness - fist bumps, moves adopted from Jay-Z videos - beloved by the press and perpetually surrounded by technology-savvy fans.

As Kurt Andersen noted in New York magazine, it's easy to conclude that the precisely diverse crowds behind Obama represent "the America." But they actually leave out large swaths of an America that, if "old," isn't gone yet - and this isn't even getting into the headscarves.

It's not only that the people who create and run the media - and who love Obama - occupy the social and cultural upper rungs. The world depicted in "the media," broadly construed - not just straight journalism but everything we watch and read and hear - is overwhelmingly a bright, shiny, upscale, youngish world. Uneducated white people, residents of the so-called C and D counties, and the elderly - in other words, Hillary Clinton voters - are seldom allowed into the mass-media foreground, and when they appear it's usually as bathetic figures, victims or losers. (And working-class black pop culture is considered part of the sexy mainstream in a way that working-class white pop culture is not.)

The redesigned logo, the will.i.am video, the cover of men's Vogue, his ability to be deemed one of the fittest men in America (despite the occasional cigarette), his Versace-dedicated line, the news that he regularly trades lengthy e-mails with Scarlett Johansson. . . . We get it, the guy is cooler than 99 percent of us will ever be. We will hear endless comparisons to John F. Kennedy, the last president who enjoyed the status of a style icon.

But it's easy to imagine John Kennedy winning the 1960 election even if he hadn't been cool. It's hard to imagine him winning if he hadn't gotten to the right of Nixon on national security. Having the coolest-looking seal in the world on your lectern can't compensate for weaknesses of the man speaking behind it.
By Jim Geraghty
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online
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