Barack Obama
Credit: Jim Young/Reuters

Argue with John McCain all you want about off-shore oil drilling and time tables for troop redeployment, but the Republican candidate is indisputably correct about one issue: Barack Obama really is “the biggest celebrity in the world.” McCain’s new attack ad (you know, the one casting Britney Spears and Paris Hilton as this election’s Willie Horton) is right on target when it points out that Obama looks as much like a pop icon as the presumptive Democratic nominee. Where McCain goes wrong, though, is mistaking this for a bad thing. Obama’s movie star style of campaigning may well be what wins him the White House this November.

Just look at the “optics” from Obama’s trip overseas last month. There he is hovering over Iraq in a helicopter, flashing a Top Gun grin. There he is on a basketball court in Kuwait sinking a three-pointer with the aplomb of a wonkier Michael Jordan. And there he is in Berlin, rocking a crowd of 200,000 in Tiergarten Park, with a speech almost as political as one of Bono’s. Rock star. Matinee idol. Sports hero. At times Obama has even resembled a fashion model — striding out of a jet in designer suit and sunglasses, a duffle slung effortlessly over one shoulder. Is this a campaign stop or a Dolce & Gabbana ad?

addCredit(“Barack Obama: Jim Young/Reuters”)

JFK may have been the first American President to use television tohis political advantage, Ronald Reagan may have been the first tomaster the medium, but Obama is the first candidate to turn hiscampaign into a multimedia marketing extravaganza akin to the launch ofa blockbuster film. He’s made himself more than a politician; he’s abrand, complete with logo (that red, white and blue “sunrise” symbol).

McCain complains that his opponent is too much of a glamour puss tobe President — usually while doing a badly lit photo op in the dairyaisle of a Midwestern supermarket. But Obama is merely appropriatingthe pop cultural syntax of our time, speaking to voters in the visuallanguage of our celebrity-crazed, media-saturated, consumer-driven age.Sure, it can be derided as shallow and trivial, but this is how youinfiltrate people’s head space in the 21st Century. It’s one of thereasons Obama is reaching voters who never paid much attention topolitics before (like all those kids snapping up Obama “superhero”T-shirts at Comic-Con last week). These days, when more people read People than Newsweek,when some of our best friends are celebrities — when we know more aboutBrad and Angelina’s kids than our neighbor’s and have a more intimaterelationship with Oprah than with our doctors — star power isn’t such aterrible thing to have if you happen to be running for President of theUnited States.