Supporters of U.S. President Barack Obama sometimes get mocked for supposedly thinking of him as a virtual messiah, not just a politician. There’s at least one whole book that goes to town with this idea, and it didn’t take me long to find a couple of websites (Obama for Messiah and Is Barack Obama the Messiah?) specifically dedicated to it. I suspect that in most cases the derision is unwarranted. I’ve met a fair number of people from various countries who like Obama, including a few who really, really like him, and they’ve generally had intelligible non-messianic reasons for doing so. However, the man does attract more than his share of quasi-unhinged testimonials with an uncomfortably religious ring to them. The other day the Globe and Mail published a fine example of the genre from Judith Timson:
We have all in our own ways been stakeholders in the promise of the Obamas.
For it wasn’t just American voters who chose him to be “The One,” lining up for hours outside of polling stations four years ago, in Mr. Obama’s victory-night words, to “put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”
Silly me, I thought it actually was only American voters who got to pick American presidents. Maybe picking “The One” is different, although Timson doesn’t explain exactly how.
People the world over thought that Americans, by electing their first black president, who talked to the world about hope and change, were indeed bending toward justice, willing America to be a better place. What else was that Nobel Peace Prize about?
We all proudly put our hands on the arc of history.
Sharing in the historically resplendent moment on the night of his election, as Barack Obama stood with his beautiful wife and daughters, thrillingly introduced as “America’s new first family,” you would have had to be devoid of hope or any desire for change, your veins filled with ice water, not to cry.
I was, and remain, in the ranks of the ice water brigade. I didn’t think the moment was historically resplendent, didn’t find it thrilling that the Obamas had become “America’s new first family”, and certainly didn’t cry. I thought the Americans had probably chosen the better of two mediocre candidates, but I wouldn’t have been greatly disappointed or concerned if it had gone the other way. They were electing the president of the United States, not of North America, and American presidents have limited room for manoeuvre in any case. I’ve always been a little puzzled by Canadians who get caught up in U.S. politics to the extent that Timson (who sounds Canadian enough, from her biographic blurb) seems to have.
Beyond that, the striking thing about Timson’s holy witnessin’ on behalf of Obama is that she doesn’t mention having been particularly interested in his ability to govern. Either her enthusiasm for bending the arc of history made all that tiresome stuff about wars and deficits seem unimportant by comparison (not being American may have facilitated this), or she somehow assumed that a champion arc-bender like Obama would automatically be good at the business of governance as well. The latter possibility borders on magical thinking, but the former can’t explain why so many people who were passionate about Obama in 2008 are now feeling let down. If all they expected him to do was bend the damn arc, they’ve got no business complaining that he didn’t also close Guantanamo Bay, get the economy back on track, and/or set up a proper health care system with a “public option”. And yet he got lumbered with those unrealistic expectations, despite what The Economist described as his “thin” resume even as it was in the process of endorsing him with the revealing words “It’s time” (I still have that issue lying around my apartment). It’s hard to imagine why this happened, unless significant numbers of people implicitly bought into the idea that he was so amazing by his very nature, so transformative, that he would be able to solve real, intractable problems just by sprinkling a little of the fairy dust around.
Of course, not even Judith Timson thinks Obama is a literal messiah who will judge all humanity, inaugurate an age of everlasting peace, or whatever. It’s unlikely that anyone will be praying for his second coming two thousand years from now – or at least, I fervently hope they won’t. In that sense, all the “Obamessiah” stuff is clearly unfair and over the top. Nevertheless, Timson is providing us with a reasonably clear example of how an idea long associated with religion, in this case the appearance of a benevolent human with a mysterious, inexplicable power to do good, can prove depressingly transferrable to the secular context of an election campaign in a modern democracy. While I’d like to think that the spread of atheism, assuming it continues, will result in better and more rational societies, I take things like this as a warning to temper my expectations. Devotion to “The One” is probably less harmful than devotion to al-Mahdi, or even a certain level of devotion to Prince Philip, but it smells like a less potent form of the same poison.