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As Obama's popularity drops, so do sales of his merchandise

By Rick Rojas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010; C01

Not that long ago, President Obama was more than a president wading through two wars and a bad economy. He was Superman, clutching a basketball in mid-air and about to slam-dunk, on a sparkly T-shirt available in Union Station for $14.99.

A medallion of his face was airbrushed onto T-shirts, swinging on a gold chain next to another medallion with the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. His family portrait was emblazoned on not-quite-microwave-safe dinner plates, and his essence was somehow captured for a cologne. (Of course, the same was done with Michelle Obama for women.)

He was everywhere. In the worst of the recession, Obama was creating jobs and spurring consumer activity -- and all it required were vendors and Web sites hawking stuff that could somehow be tangential to him and his moment in history.

But even an industry that might have seemed recession-proof apparently can't survive the doldrums that hit the president near the midterm elections.

Two years into his presidency, Obama's approval ratings have fallen like those of most of his predecessors, who tended to dip in the polls about halfway through a term. Then again, most presidents aren't an industry unto themselves. The people who have made bank despite a bad economy are certainly taking notice.

Souvenir vendors in Washington say once-thriving sales of the garish merchandise fawning over the president are nowhere near what they were. Sales peaked at the height of Obamamania, between the election and the inauguration, but vendors said that Obama paraphernalia still moved from their shelves through much of 2009.

Freddy Vinoya, of Souvenir World in the District, said he has seen sales, and shoppers' interest, taper off since October, when the store opened.

In Union Station, the souvenir shop once dubbed the Obama Store because of its mostly Obama-related selection (save for the Michael Jackson memorabilia of the same vein that popped up after his death) has closed. A jewelry-repair shop stands in its place near the food court.

"That moment in history is gone," said Molly Andolina, a professor of political science at DePaul University, in the president's adopted home town of Chicago. "You're going to only see the enthusiasts" continue to buy, she said.

Using merchandise sales as a measure of public opinion is anything but definitive. The downward trend in sales could simply mean that the market has been exhausted: How many Obama shirts can one person own, anyway?

The trend in sales, however, does mirror the trend in the president's popularity.

"The Democratic base is less excited than the Republican base," Andolina said. "Obama has lost the enthusiasm." She added: "It's very typical to be doing poorly at this point."

The reason the president was selling so well was the support he had from independents -- the people, politically active or otherwise, who don't typically buy campaign T-shirts. Yet they snapped up the $5 shirts from street vendors, as well as haughtier (and exponentially more expensive) options from top-flight designers such as Diane Von Furstenburg, Donna Karan and Beyoncé's own House of Dereon.

The independents, though, have left Obama behind.

"Bottom line: Obama is not doing well," Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center, said of the president's standing with independents. Forty-two percent of independents disapprove of his job performance, according to Pew's most recent polling data.

A similar figure has shown up in the sales figures of a Web site selling political merchandise.

CafePress, a California-based site that allows customers to upload their own designs and make them available for others to buy, has used its T-shirt sales as a sort of cultural barometer of political opinion.

What sales have been lost in merchandise supporting the president have been made up by products ripping Obama and his policies, said Amy Maniatis, vice president of CafePress. The positive-to-negative ratio has fallen to 60 to 40, Maniatis said. That figure had been at 90 percent positive just months ago.

"Obama's still quite healthy," she said, using the T-shirt rubric. "You slowly see he's being criticized, and [there's] a huge amount of merchandise related to every policy decision. . . . People are just engaged with this presidential term."

The change in Obama's political fortunes led Tini Cherkaoui, manager of Discount Souvenirs and Novelties in the District, to alter her inventory. The merchandise touting hope and "Change We Can Believe" has been replaced by items taunting those themes.

"It used to be that anything Obama -- it was just hot," she said, as a group of tourists wearing anti-Obama T-shirts milled around on the sidewalk. "Now, they're just against Obama."

That change doesn't bother her. In her years in the novelty business, she said, she has learned that Republicans are bigger spenders than Democrats. So she's trying to appeal to the new merchandising trend. A wall of the store now has shirts of a more conservative variety:

"Don't Tread on Me."

"We Need Jobs. Not This Hopey-Changey Thing."

"Don't Keep the Change."

A life-size poster of a smiling Obama used to bring people up to the store to take their picture with the "president," and often lead them to buy a little piece of the Obama moment to take home, Cherkaoui said. Then customers started making derisive comments about the president, and the Obama that once brought in business is now stowed away in the storage room.

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