Barack Obama may or may not save the auto industry or the banking system. But he's already a one-man stimulus package for the media (present publication included). Magazines with his face on the cover fly off shelves by the millions. Publishers hawk instant dvds and books. An MSNBC ad invites viewers to "experience the power of change." For one glorious day, Nov. 5, Americans actually wanted to buy a newspaper.
After that remarkable Grant Park tableau introducing America to its black First Family, Barack had to share Obamamania with the wife and kids. Us Weekly ran a cover story on BARACK OBAMA'S GIRLS. Michelle, Malia and Sasha graced the cover of New York magazine's gift guide. And half of the Obamas' 60 Minutes--the highest-rated episode of any TV show this season--covered the kids' school prospects, the puppy issue and Obama's diplomatic relations with his mother-in-law. (See pictures of Barack Obama's family tree.)
Kids, dogs and mother-in-law humor: it's as if the Obamas are launching an early '60s sitcom before our eyes. With good reason: the First Family--elect may represent a big social shift, but their retro, TV Land ordinariness helped get America comfortable with Dad. Quipping with 60 Minutes' Steve Kroft, Barack and Michelle echoed not J.F.K. and Jackie but rather Rob and Laura Petrie--she, the amiably needling supporter; he, the self-deprecatingly put-upon hubby joking about Michelle's asking him to take the girls to school the morning after the election. This fall, on every channel, it's Meet the Obamas! (Or: At Least 52.7% of Everybody Loves Barack.) (See pictures of Michelle Obama meeting Hillary Clinton.)
The fascination with the First-in-More-Than-One-Way Family is not just about race. A young family in the White House symbolizes change more vividly than any Cabinet appointment. Whitney Houston was corny but right: children are the future and a potent symbol thereof. Also, there will be a puppy! Did I mention the puppy?
But this is America: of course it's about race too. After Obama won, there was talk of a "Huxtable effect"--the idea that pop-cultural portrayals of African Americans from The Cosby Show to 24's David Palmer readied white America for a black President. But maybe there's an opposite factor at work here too--the 50 Cent effect. The impact of the Obamas comes partly from the unspoken contrast to a decades-old media archive of images of black people as problems or threats, from news to cop shows to hip-hop. Broken families, perp walks, AKs and Cristal.
Suddenly the most photographed black man in America was giving speeches and calling world leaders. Suddenly the most discussed black women in America were two adorable kids and their lawyer mom. Suddenly you had a news story involving a black man and dogs, and it wasn't Michael Vick.