Anyone who’s ever been to a concert will understand the dynamic of an Obama visitation. Outside the University of Queensland Centre, unending lines of mostly young punters stood bum to groin in the baking sun. Most were dressed up, nice shirts, fancy dresses, like this was a nightclub opening. An air of keen expectation fizzed as the bitumen bubbled. Uni students could only queue like this for free beer. Or Obama.
Security checks by buzzcut Americans were conducted with an air of polite authority. The mouth may frame a Hollywood smile, but the eyes behind those mirror shades say, “Do not fuck with us”. While an annoyance any other time, this only added to the thrill of gaining admission, like Jack Nicholson has just thrown us tickets to his table at the Vanity Fair Oscars party. Except this was probably better. At least for this crowd of diligent trainee Masters of the Universe and their Elders.
Inside the auditorium was brightly lit and humming. Funk music — Earth, Wind and Fire’s Shining Star — pumped incongruously from the speakers (has there been a study on warm-up music selected by presidents? There surely should be). Some of the kids tapped their feet while the security guys kept talking into their earpieces. An hour-and-a-half out and the place was pretty much full. Everyone standing.
The first American President to grace this city since Lyndon Johnson in 1966 was on his way from Amberley Air Base to address what he hoped was the next generation of Asia-Pacific leaders, the kind of over-achieving swots who win presidential scholarships and score major post-grad grants. And lead companies and countries. And they were here, banked up 20 high and 40 across along the wall to President Barack Obama’s right.
But the best seats, right in front and close enough to be spittled on, were given to the same old leaders: Campbell Newman, Natasha Stott-Despoja, Quentin Bryce, Tanya Plibersek, Alan Joyce to name a few, and faces you know you know but can’t remember the names. Old guard and current guard glad-handed and grinning, a few leaning over into the media area to offer grabs like they were feeding the monkeys.
And half the auditorium was taken up by that media area. In there, we were fenced off like zoo exhibits, roaming a much-too-big space and trying not to look as excited as the kids in school uniforms. Half of our area was given over to the White House bureaux, the best seats and all reserved. A camera platform offered left-side views of the President and another provided front-on vision. Another camera bay in front gave selected shutterbugs prized close-ups.
All was with the image in mind. The news shots could only offer shots of Obama foregrounded triumphantly against hordes of smiling youth, or framed patriotically by the stars and stripes and the Australian flag. The front pages were constructed days if not weeks ago. Zero chance of an unflattering angle or a messy backdrop. Even the post-speech rope line was perfectly landscaped.
When he arrived it was with all the fluid aura we had come to expect. He waved easily, smiled that big toothy grin, made in-jokes about UQ and pronounced “Brizbn” like a Queenslander, dropping the Yankee “Brizbayne” cliche. There were cheers, knowing smiles and chronic goodwill.
“The pitch to the youth was calculated. Obama knows this is where he will always get his best audience. They help him create good copy.”
He touched on regional alliances, relations with China, Indonesia and the Philippines, talked about Marines on rotation in Australia’s north, mentioned Ebola, Islamic State, Russia and the Ukraine (“a threat to the world”), and his belief that the East Asia Summit should be a “leading forum”.
Then he got started.
The first eruption of applause was when he launched into climate change. “We have to lead,” he told a curiously absent Tony Abbott, and argued we should “look closely at the science,” something our government seems genetically unable to do.
“We can get this done!” he intoned with that now-famous lilt at the end of an emphatic statement, making it sound utterly obvious, the side head tilt, the hanging finger point. The room would have elected him with that line alone.
He lambasted the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, an angle always likely to get a warm reception among most Queenslanders. More enthusiastic applause, hoots, smiles of delight. The President waited for the tide to surge, ranks of cameras to fire up, shutters sneezing, flashbulbs scoring the air like distant lightening.
Now in the heat of the oration, he promoted advocacy, pushed civil activism. “Combating climate change cannot be the work of governments alone … raise your voice!” Again, the upward lilt. It’s so damn clear, people!
I felt he looked straight at me, and I’ll guarantee most others in the room felt the same. This is the Obama Gift.
He backed women’s rights — cheers — gay and lesbian rights — cheers — and said we should develop “new high standards for trade that uphold our values”. He wanted, he said, “progress not just with nations but with people”.
He ended and stepped down to smile and joke with assembled dignitaries, many of whom seemed besotted enough to jostle — was that Bronwyn Bishop’s beehive staggering just behind the action, seeking access to the Presidential shake? Hardened media hacks took selfies and flushed and giggled, betraying the studied coolness they would show on TV that night or reflect in earnest prose in tomorrow’s papers.
And it is done. He is gone.
The pitch to the youth was calculated. Obama knows this is where he will always get his best audience. They are photogenic and generally enthusiastic. They make a perfect backdrop. Visually, they look clean and happy. They tend to clap and cheer a lot. Obama is often wanting to “talk to the young people” wherever he goes. They help him create good copy.
The content didn’t really matter. It was the manufactured moments that counted. This is PR 101. Another act was played out and we had all played our part in the grand theatre that makes US power what it is.