As we near election day in the United States, this also means that the days of the Barack Obama presidency are concurrently winding down. As opposed to examining the initiatives and actions of the Obama Administration in current events lessons and Civics classes, educators and students will begin to integrate study of these momentous previous eight years into coursework that deals with contemporary history. These investigations and evaluations of this administration must also be seen through the lens of public perception and the roles of media platforms in what we see, hear, and communicate about our government. As has been noted on previous occasions in posts at mediateacher.net — such as in Media Literacy at the White House and The Presidential Inauguration and Images — it’s not something that can be said too often in U.S. history, but President Obama’s tenure has been a game changer for media literate leadership.
How will the events of these years be seen through the prism of comparison and contrast with other eras and leadership examples? Undoubtedly, perceptions will be made up of a mix of facts, perceptive analyses, partisan posturing, storytelling, advertising, and many variations in between. It is clear that both President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are already inspiring profound reflections on the major impact of their years in the White House, such as the piece titled “To the First Lady, With Love” from the New York Times Magazine, featuring “four thank-you notes to Michelle Obama, who has spent the past eight years quietly and confidently changing the course of American history,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Gloria Steinem, Jon Meacham, and Rashida Jones.
The inspired, heartfelt testimonials that have been beginning to appear over recent months echo similar tributes seen at the end of another Democratic presidency that was marked by messages of change and fresh renewal (whether borne out by the reality of its achievements or not): the Kennedy administration. Interestingly, this was also a presidency that consistently demonstrated the vital importance of media literacy to understand the contexts and legacy of political events in modern eras. Television and film, including home movies, were to mark and shape the John F. Kennedy presidency and its legacy like no other previous administration, while the Obama presidency will be seen as having a relationship to the media platforms of its era like never before, particularly in the relationships of Internet, social media, and popular discourse, along with the explosion of the television experience.
In the midst of this, there is another rather intriguing parallel of note. The Kennedy presidency was marked by the pastoral and cannily mystical term of “Camelot” (by President Kennedy’s widow Jacqueline Kennedy shortly after his assassination) to describe a feeling of the “moment” that embodies the time of the Kennedys in the White House: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot” (Lerner and Loewe). In an even more direct way with the current administration, a musical can be seen to embody the impact and times of the current presidency. For one to describe that place of a shining home upon a hill, with its growing family, glamorous parties, and vegetable garden, yet inhabited by people whose skin color would have marked them as slaves in the years of the construction of this home, a term that comes to mind is “Hamiltonia.”
For a musical to emerge that examines the roots of the country and in which the principals are played by people whose ethnicity reflects not that of the founding fathers but those who currently inhabit the White House, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton marks one occasion where the creative output of a culture and the zeitgeist embodied by its leaders are remarkably in sync. The celebrations and honors by those who have been inspired and empowered by the examples and actions of Barack and Michelle Obama have only just begun; it seems clear that the impacts and legacy of their images and personas will continue to resound for generations to come. For me, this striking, dynamic place and time of the Obama family in the White House might be called Hamiltonia.