Clothes make the administration.
Consider the Bush administration's preferred garb. George W. Bush favored the flight suit look when he landed on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln back in May 2003 for his premature enunciation that the Iraq War was over. The press went wild. "Here's a president who's really nonverbal," Chris Matthews said, turning "nonverbal" for the first time into high praise. "He's like Eisenhower. He looks great in a military uniform. He looks great in that cowboy costume he wears when he goes West."
Not to be outdone, Vice President Dick Cheney donned hunter's cap and shouldered his gun to provide the administration with some additional street cred with the National Rifle Association. And don't forget Condoleezza Rice's Matrix-gear from her trip to Germany in 2005: the black skirt, the long black coat, and the black knee-high boots that "speak of sex and power," as The Washington Post aptly described the outfit.
How quickly a particular style can go out of fashion. The Obama administration leans toward the economic rather than the military look. During the campaign, Barack Obama frequently rolled up his sleeves. As president, he raised critics' eyebrows for not wearing his suit jacket in the White House, with former Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card fatuously comparing the Oval Office to a locker room. The criticism isn't sticking. The president is projecting a no-nonsense, back-to-business look: more Clark Kent than Superman.
Michelle Obama, meanwhile, has captured the headlines and the magazine covers with her haute couture. A trio of First Ladies graces the cover of The New Yorker. Oprah was moved to share the cover of O for the first time in its publishing history. New York magazine has devoted an entire issue to her style. And, of course, there's a blog devoted to nothing but her attire. It's a far cry from the "angry black woman" label the conservative press tried to pin on her. The presidential image consultants have worked overtime to soften her image and suggest a regal, "Jackie O" persona. But it's also interesting that the only muscle talked about in relation to the Obama administration is the First Lady's biceps, which she has bared in several sleeveless dresses.
The United States remains, however, a country at war. So, as revealed in a candid photo from December of a shirtless president-elect on a Hawaiian vacation, there's some muscle underneath the civilian attire. The Obama administration is sending more troops to Afghanistan, increasing the military budget, and expanding the overall army. This enduring reliance on military force prompted Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) senior analyst Christine Ahn and FPIF contributor Gwyn Kirk to stage a recent fashion show to expose the subtle ways that militarism creeps into our national budgets, foreign policies, and interpersonal relationships.
Down the runway marched a series of models portraying the latest in military chic. Take, for example, the outfit entitled "Militarized National Budget." "The chic camouflage jacket represents the half of the discretionary federal budget devoted to war, and the skirt shows the other half of the budget allocated to civilian needs," Ahn and Kirk write. "Patterned after a pie chart, the colors on the skirt are blue for health, yellow for energy, red for transportation, and purple for international affairs. Tucked between the pleats of the skirt is more camouflage, representing more military spending: the Veterans Administration sneaks into the health budget, Homeland Security creeps into transportation, NASA and nuclear weapons research is buried in energy, and international affairs money trains foreign troops." To read about more of the outfits and see them in full color, check out Fashioning Resistance to Militarism. And you can come to your own conclusion about the administration's new clothes.
Originally published Foreign Policy in Focus