Recently, while stopping by The Royale, a local St. Louis watering hole, I discovered a new addition to their wall mural of fleurs-de-lis - a large, three-paneled painting of three Barack Obamas with the words hope, change and progress underneath in a style that owes as much to George Orwell as it does to Andy Warhol. A few nights later, while walking through the Loop neighborhood, I saw in a boutique window - you know the kind, $80 t-shirts and $300 jeans - a pink woman’s T-shirt with “Obama” spelled in rhinestones across the chest.
Color this Obama supporter disturbed.
No, there is nothing wrong with an Obama supporter painting an Obama mural on a local building, despite its unfortunate associations to images of Joseph Stalin and Kim Jong-il. Neither is it a problem that a local designer wants to capitalize on Obama’s popularity by turning him into fashion. The problem is that these are just two small symptoms of a larger disease that has infected Obama’s candidacy. The sickness is the cult of personality.
Obama’s campaign has always been about change, but it used to be about bringing America together, uniting the country in order to accomplish pragmatic goals to improve the lives of everyday Americans. In effect, it was about us. Us coming together, us healing around divisions and wounds to move forward and lift the country out of its morass. Along the way, though, the campaign became about Obama himself.
T-shirts with his face on them are everywhere. He briefly broke out a personalized seal for himself, reminiscent of the presidential seal. His supporters greet him with tears of joy, as they would Miley Cyrus or the Pope. Obama announced moving his August speech at the Democratic Convention from the usual 20,000 seat arena to a 76,000 seat football stadium. Yes, he’s popular. We know. But he isn’t, actually, a rock star or pontiff.
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As the above examples illustrate, some of the responsibility for Obama’s transformation from the candidate who inspires to a figure of near-worship lies with his supporters, while some lies with the candidate and his campaign. The people, not the campaign, are the ones wearing the shirts, fainting at the rallies, and creating the adoring web sites. This makes sense. The country is not doing well by just about any measure. Our economy is dismal, our foreign policy is without direction, our world standing is low and we are in two wars. The public is furious (at worst) and disapproving (at best) of our president. We want to be saved.
Along comes a candidate speaking of hope and unity, of putting these bleak times behind us. He is biracial and speaks of being bipartisan, he is young and charismatic and carries an aura of newness, of the future, of a new day. We buy in. We can’t help it. We want progress. We want something new. Why wouldn’t we? The last eight years, whether you lean Republican or Democrat, have been abysmal.
Further, to get a bit archetypal on you, people are generally just suckers for the narrative that Obama is occupying. A chosen one comes out of nowhere, an unlikely underdog facing immense odds, yet defeats them all and leads his people to salvation. This is the story of so many great religions, as well as that of our most beloved and successful movies. It is not a coincidence that Star Wars, The Matrix and Lord of the Rings have been as successful as they have. People are primed for that plot. Karl Rove was quoted some months ago as saying that Obama thought he was the Messiah, but he could also be viewed as Luke Skywalker, Neo or Frodo Baggins.
Obama, though, hasn’t exactly been resisting this hero-creation. The faux presidential seal? The convention speech in front of 76,000? The recent Berlin speech in front of 200,000?
It’s tempting to revel in being turned into a savior-hero figure, both personally in terms of one’s ego and pragmatically in terms of getting elected. But Obama must resist this. American greatness is not about superhuman image and the exaltation of a leader, but the greatness of the people. Our great leaders inspire us to do great things, whether it is to defeat tyranny in World War II, reach the moon or achieve civil rights for all races. Obama needs to not bask in the light that the public wants to shine on him, but rather reflect it back onto America
Barack Obama will achieve greatness if he can move us to meet our wondrous potential as a nation, not if he can get us to bask in his transcendent glow.