Disney, Obama and the American dream

Visiting Disney World with my family last week, I took in the show at the Hall of Presidents in the Magic Kingdom’s Liberty Square. After browsing through a small collection of Presidential memorabilia in the lobby of the theater (including a childhood autobiography Richard Nixon wrote in 1925 and a replica of the cowboy boots George W. Bush wore at one of his inaugurations), we entered the theater for the main event: a 20-minute presentation about the history of the Presidency, concluding with an animatronic display in which all 44 chief executives occupy the stage.

The map of the Magic Kingdom had made a big deal out of the fact that the Hall of Presidents show now features President Barack Obama. Indeed, during the show and afterwards, I found myself thinking about Obama. The presentation had been pretty simplistic (and how could it not be, covering over 200 years in around 20 minutes and having been designed for a mass, international audience?), arguing that the American presidency is unique because it is open to all citizens, no matter how humble their origins. “Only in America,” and all that. Who’s a better poster boy for that notion than Barack Obama?

Obama could have been portrayed as the consummation of the American promise. Even a kid of modest means from Hawaii, with a Kenyan father, born to a single mother, can grow up to be President. And Obama’s youthful, attractive family has the Camelot appeal of Kennedy’s. Obama could have been the feel-good conclusion to the whole show, a powerful piece of evidence that America is getting better and better, living up to its potential more fully with each passing year. Here is a President whose wife’s ancestors were slaves. Here is a President whose parents’ interracial relationship was illegal in sixteen states. Yet, to my mind at least, the show stopped short of explicitly making these connections.

In the course of writing this post, though, I poked around on the Internet a bit and found Disney aficionado Kevin Yee’s analysis of the Hall of Presidents show, posted shortly after it was revamped to its current state in 2009. Yee argues that the implications of the show’s narrative are clear and unmistakable:

The bottom line is that the show now offers park visitors an actual, honest to goodness thesis: everything in American presidential history, it claims by virtue of a new storyline, has been inexorably leading up to this moment, and the election of Barack Obama is the culmination of a long “development” in us as a culture and a society.

Lee predicts that the show will alienate some audience members, and says that he has witnessed some people reacting unfavorably to it.

When Obama was introduced by the recorded narrator in the show, there was a pregnant pause during which I waited, dreading the heckling that I thought might erupt from some Tea Party type in the crowd. But nobody spoiled the moment with nastiness—maybe it was the Disney magic winning out. The show concludes with a roll call of the Presidents seated and standing on stage, culminating in the animatronic Barack Obama reciting the oath of office and speaking about America as a land of “limitless possibilities” where “‘We the People’ means ALL the people.” (See also this interesting video of Obama doing the recording for the show.)

It will probably take another fifteen or twenty years for the partisan fervor surrounding Obama’s presidency to die down enough to allow Disney to present Obama explicitly as quintessentially American—as the consummation of Disney’s historical narrative about America—without offending some segment of the show’s audience. Some Americans’ political or racial attitudes prevent them from viewing Obama in this way.

I suspect, however, that come this November, one powerful force in the election will be the pull that Obama still has on the American imagination. We like to think of America as a place where anyone can become President, where racism and prejudice gradually fade away thanks to the heroic efforts of those who struggle for freedom, where hard work and talent can compete with money and privilege.

We live in a Disney nation—a land where people believe in fairy tales, a land that promises that dreams can come true. Barack Obama’s story flatters the Disney narrative of America, completes the Disney version of the American presidency. For that reason, despite America’s economic woes, Republican obstructionism, the raging of the birthers and Tea Partiers, the persistence of racism, and Mitt Romney’s huge campaign war chest, I think Obama will win in November. I don’t think America will turn down four more years of the dream.