The Obama Effect: Have the president and first lady taken on Oprah's golden touch?
When Oprah Winfrey famously gave then-candidate Obama her endorsement for president, it seems she also transferred her incredible ability to positively impact brands and careers to the now-president and first lady — a.k.a. her “Oprah Effect.” It has been well-documented that at one time just one positive word from Winfrey on her eponymous show could make a book a bestseller or create a fever for a meal as basic as grilled chicken. It seems that the Oprah Effect has morphed into the Obama Effect, as the POTUS and FLOTUS have taken on that magical power to move the masses according to their personal tastes.
President Obama’s recent appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon “slow-jamming the news” led to the show’s highest ratings in two years. Likewise, when the president crooned a snippet of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at a fundraiser in Harlem this past January, sales of the single spiked 490 percent.
Just as Oprah did for Dr. Phil, Obama has been a boon to the careers of former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who went on to become the mayor of Chicago, and current White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, among others. Even after being ousted as the first lady’s social secretary after a scandal, Desiree Rogers became the CEO of Johnson Publishing.
Meanwhile, first lady Michelle Obama’s sartorial choices have had massive influence, catapulting little-known designers into the American consciousness — in the process, creating an eco-system of websites and blogs that subsist on her every fashion move. After the soon-to-be first lady appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno wearing a J. Crew ensemble during the 2008 campaign, blogs and news outlets pounced to report the news and publish “get the look” posts. Her continued support of the retailer led to an 8.2 percent surge in the company’s stock price.
When she donned Maria Pinto at the Democratic National Convention, the Chicago-based designer, theretofore known among a small circle of retail buyers and customers, suddenly became a household name. Similarly, the FLOTUS’ inauguration dress choice pushed niche high fashion designer Jason Wu squarely into the annals of American history. Wu went on to create a collection for Target which sold out just hours after its February 2012 launch.
To chronicle Michelle Obama’s daily fashion choices, Mary Tomer Byun launched the blog Mrs-O.org (now Mrs-O.com) in September 2008. She wrote the style bible Mrs. O: The Face of Fashion Democracy two years later.
J. Crew creative director Jenna Lyons called the FLOTUS “the gift that keeps on giving.” Designer Tracy Reese, another favorite of the first lady’s, told theGrio over email that, “Michelle Obama is an unplanned stimulus package for the American fashion industry.”
In fact a study has shown that the first lady generated nearly $3 billion in wealth for fashion companies between late 2008 and 2009 through the power of her clothing choices alone. When Michelle Obama decides to wear a brand, its value literally shoots up.
Talk about the Obama Effect.
But while the president and first lady’s popularity has stimulated sales of the aforementioned staples, their “effect” has had its limits — much like Oprah’s. Just as the former queen of daytime TV has struggled to convert the influence and authority she enjoyed with the Oprah show into an audience for her television network OWN, the president has struggled to sell many of his initiatives to the public. His job approval rating has steadily declined since 2008, currently hovering at just under 50 percent. Even Michelle Obama’s sartorial endorsement couldn’t save Maria Pinto. The designer went out of business two years after the election.
But don’t tell the GOP any of that. Republicans certainly don’t want to hear it, although they taunt the president for his celebrity. Yet, it seems the president’s opposition is as influenced by the Obama Effect as any other group.
Not only did the GOP immediately copy Obama’s web branding in the 2008 campaign, but then-Republican presidential nominee John McCain also acknowledged his opponent’s ability to draw hundreds of thousands in Germany with an ad comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton — affirming him as “the biggest celebrity in the world.” And ironically acknowledging his universal appeal.
In 2012, the Karl Rove-led Super PAC American Crossroads also underscored Obama’s “cool” factor, creating a music video of highlights featuring the president’s aforementioned slow-jam session and Al Green serenade — plus multiple beauty shots of the POTUS rocking shades, famously dancing on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show, and catching a fly out of the air during the improbable Mr. Miyagi moment of a 60 Minutes interview. Even Kanye West makes a cameo, all while a crowd chants “Obama” and a strange voice crows “Yeah…”
This move to cast the president as an out of touch pop star not only did not work during the last election — it also underscores how out of touch the Right is. Their fear of Obama’s pull on the public led to John McCain’s reactionary VP pick (if we are to believe Game Change), and feeds the GOP’s general amnesia as they hail Ronald Reagan — forgetting their hero was a movie star himself before transitioning to politics. Republicans should thus realize the importance of the likeability factor, a lesson sorely missed by Romney. A candidate’s “effect” is an essential part of any campaign.
But instead of learning from him, the Right’s fixation on Obama often takes on a crazed fan-like obsession, such as when the birthers led a tabloid-esque hunt for Obama’s birth certificate.
The Obama Effect might not always help the president and first lady reach their main goals, but it does keep the collective in rapt attention — even leaders of the GOP. As long as Republicans keep reminding America just how cool the president is — giving fans and detractors more fodder for Facebook posts, Twitter feeds, YouTube accounts, and the 24 hour news cycle — they’ll get four more years to study Obama in the Oval Office, in their desperate search for their own swag.
Follow Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond on Twitter at @nanaekua