The Cult of Obama

Obama will give his acceptance speech tonight in Invesco Field in front of 80,000 fans. The New York Times wonders how he can handle this crowd without looking even more like a worshiped celebrity. The Washington Post plays up the significance of the date, the 45th anniversary of minister Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. It’s a lot to live up to and lot to live down to. George Will suggests it’s time for Obama to start getting into particulars. I have a better idea: pass out a copy of Gene Healy’s latest op/ed to everyone who enters the stadium:

Humility is hard to discern on the modern campaign trail. If our presidential candidates seem to embrace an exalted notion of their status, perhaps that’s a function of the adulation they’re greeted with by the crowds at campaign appearances. A recent feature in The New York Times described the prevailing atmosphere: “Look at the faces – not of the candidates, but of the rope-liners themselves, with arms and fingers extended, their eyes bugged and sometimes tearful.” “I got to smell him, and it was awesome,” exclaimed Kate Homrich, who managed to get close to Obama at one campaign rally. Another, Bonnie Owens, got a finger-pinch from the Illinois senator: “Best experience of my life,” she declared.

And it’s not just voters at campaign rallies who fall prey to presidential idolatry. If anything, American political elites – pundits, talking heads, and presidential scholars – are worse. When President Bush traveled to Blacksburg, Va. to offer comfort after the April 2007 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, David Gergen, adviser to one Democratic and three Republican presidents, commented, “At times like this, [the president] takes off his cap as commander in chief and puts on the robes of consoler in chief.” Leon Panetta, former chief of staff to President Clinton, went even further: “In many ways, [the president] is our national chaplain.” […]

An increasing number of Americans worry that the presidency has grown too big, too powerful, and too menacing. Yet we also want the government – chiefly, the president – to “do more.” And when terror strikes, hurricanes ravage, homes foreclose, the stock market drops, and food prices rise, we inevitably blame one person: the president.

Investing our lives with hope, uniting us all behind a higher calling, fixing our “broken” souls – none of this is remotely the president’s business. It’s not surprising that presidential contenders cater to our contradictory expectations. That’s the business they’re in. But if we’re unhappy with the results, we ought to recall the wisdom contained in the Pogo Principle: “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

So long as we embrace – or even tolerate – the idea that the president is the guardian of our national soul, we have little right to complain about our burgeoning Imperial Presidency.

Read the whole thing here.


4 thoughts on “The Cult of Obama”

  1. Oh, come on. In essence, what Healy seems to be saying is a President has no role other than operating the machinery of government.

    Is he saying there’s no legitimacy to, say, Reagan’s speech after the Challenger explosion? In that lyrical speech, Reagan wasn’t putting forth any policy…he was consoling. And I don’t particularly see anything wrong with that.

    I’m just saying: to say that the President has some role in inspiring us to a higher cause is not the same as saying we should expect the President to solve all our problems. The latter expectation is far more dangerous. To lump the former in the with the latter is overshooting the mark.

  2. Yes, that is what Healy’s saying, and I agree with it. I don’t have his book with me unfortunately, but I know he cited a few past presidents declining to take on the role of consoling the American people in times of disaster. And of course early views of the presidency would have found it very unseemly for office to take on the role it does today.

    This doesn’t mean presidents can’t make great speeches now and then. But since presidents are far more than just symbolic leaders, their need to address every problem leaks into the political sphere. I’d really rather have a weaker presidency and leave the consoling speeches to someone else.

  3. “Early views of the presidency would have found it very unseemly for [the] office to take on the role it does today.”

    True, but the fact is the presidency has taken on such a role. The President has become a poster child for the nation, for better or worse. I’m not sure how, at this point, we would separate the Constitutional responsibilities of the President from his/her public presence, which includes addressing the nation in times of crisis.

  4. Well, Jacob, all I can say is that I disagree with you heartily. No, the President isn’t someone who is supposed to solve all our problems. But he does have a symbolic role larger than simply being the technician who operates the levers of government.

    I’m reminded of the horrid article you linked to once which ridiculed Obama and McCain’s calls to graduating students to live for something higher than themselves. Underneath that columnist’s rhetoric was a very Ayn Randish – that there is nothing higher than “self.” That to claim otherwise is to deny the dignity of the individual. I disagree with that notion with every fiber of my being. It stands counter to everything I believe in and everything I stand for.

    I’m not saying you endorse that view. (Honestly, I’ve never asked you about it.) And I recognize that this is a different debate than the one raised by Healy’s column. One can believe that there is something higher than oneself that one should fight for, and yet believe the President shouldn’t be the one calling you to that fight. But one can also believe that the President should have limited powers and yet believe the President should speek out on issues of the day that don’t have to do with government programs. (i.e. Obama’s suggestion that people should inflate their tires to save gas mileage and his criticism of absentee fathers….good uses of the bully pulpit in my view) (Or, at least, the campaign variation of said pulpit.)

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