Published January 23, 2009
We are in the midst of a political phenomenon. It is fairly extraordinary, and perhaps beyond anything we have seen in our lifetime. Our new president, Barack Obama, is not only the head of government; he has become a cultural symbol with rock-star appeal. I know people — lifelong Republican voters — who at one point viewed Obama with something close to contempt, who began to warm to him a bit during the presidential debates, and who now wish they had cast their vote for Obama. He takes office with his popularity near 80 percent and the political winds at his back.
What explains this appeal?
For one thing, Obama is benefiting from the support and unity that usually accompanies a new president. Once an election has been decided, most people sheath their political swords and are inclined to give the new president the benefit of the doubt.
Second, Obama has made very few unforced errors. The transition period was relatively smooth. His major appointments were fairly centrist and in some cases (like reappointing Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense) inspired.
Third, Obama is the object of unprecedented media adoration. Part of it, of course, is because he is the first black man to be elected president, which is an extraordinary and authentically moving achievement in American history. But ideology is also at work. If, say, Clarence Thomas had been elected president, the media attention would not be anything like what we have witnessed.
I find Obama to be an interesting and in many ways an attractive figure, but watching the media coverage of him over the last several days has been embarrassing. Reporters and commentators speak breathlessly and uncritically about Obama; their legs buckle in his presence and when he is on their minds. There is a palpable sense of reporters wanting his affirmation, his approval, his blessing. Obama is everything they wish they were. And so they have suspended almost all their critical faculties. One gets the sense that media figures are speaking and writing with the goal of receiving a pat on the head, a wink and a “well-done,” from Obama and his team. If they can't all be a part of his administration, they want to be a part of his Movement.
Mark Halperin — whose employer Time offers rapturous praise for Obama on a weekly basis — said shortly after the election that media bias was more intense in the 2008 election than in any other national campaign in recent history. Giving voice to what his press colleagues won't admit, Halperin referred to the “extreme bias, extreme pro-Obama coverage” which represented a “disgusting failure of people in our business.”
Thing have only gotten more disgusting since then. Take, for example, Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post, who in writing about Obama and his inaugural speech concluded his column this way:
Good words, but what made yesterday so astounding was that the words, by the decision of the American people in voting booths assembled, were made flesh.
This is of course an echo of the words of St. John, who in his Gospel, in speaking about Christ, wrote, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”
Perhaps Meyerson's words qualify as speaking truth to power in the Age of Obama.
Still, there is something else which explains, I think, Obama's appeal. For one thing, he is an extraordinary political talent, something some of us recognized back in 2007. He comes across as self-possessed, unflappable, hip, stylish. He also has an appealing cast of mind, seemingly reasonable, intelligent, detached, and serious.
These things are not unimportant. But Obama's appeal, while widespread, is largely aesthetic and personality-based. This explains why a somewhat unsettling cult of personality has arisen around Obama. His appeal is not rooted in ideas or political philosophy or governing achievements; indeed, it is not grounded in any acts of governance. Yet some people already speak of him as a Lincolnian and Messiah-like figure.
But precisely because this appeal is largely aesthetic rather than substantive, because it is not grounded in things deep or permanent, its durability is limited. Reality will intrude. A million watt smile, fashionable sunglasses, and a nice jump shot are fine — I wish I possessed each of them — but one can confidently assume that Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Hassan Nasrallah, and Hugo Chavez are immune to their charms. Inflation, deflation, and unemployment will not be determined by the eloquence of Obama's rhetoric, the dinners he attends, or the columnists and reporters he seduces.
My point is really a rather simple one: Obama will be judged by the outcome of events. The other things are fine — but in the end, they are far less important, and in some cases they are evanescent. People magazine and the Style section of the Washington Post are fun, but they are not serious.
Right now Barack Obama, having been President for all of three days, appears to be sitting on top of the world. He is a bright, talented, and able man. But the world is an untidy and unpredictable place. Pakistan may convulse. Iran may well go nuclear on Obama's watch; if so, Saudi Arabia and Egypt might soon follow, and the most unstable region in the world would be home to several nuclear powers.
Hard decisions need to be made, often based on incomplete information and rapidly changing events. Inter-agency clashes will occur. People and agencies thought to be competent will prove to be unreliable. Intelligence agencies will not be able to tell the President all that he wishes. A massive federal bureaucracy, an emboldened Congress, and other nations will begin to assert themselves. The law of economics will not be suspended. Entitlement programs remain unreformed and therefore unsustainable. Wasteful programs will refuse to die. The deficit is exploding. People's expectations are soaring, and soon enough they will insist on results.
Barack Obama may or may not succeed as president; but whether he does or not, the things people are taken up with now will not be determinative. And if things get worse rather than better, if Obama appears overmatched by events, then what are viewed as strengths now will be seen as weaknesses later. The day's vanity will become the night's remorse.
Barack Obama is President of the United States, not a crown prince on a white horse. Fairy tales are fine; but fairy tales are childish things.
–Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.