The adjectival palette has been much in use this last year or so in the stanchless commentary respecting Barack Obama and his meteoric rise to prominence. He is eulogized by many as America’s bel canto president, supposedly the most eloquent occupant of the Oval Office in living memory. Not only is he mellifluous; he is energetic, determined, and far-seeing. He is young and handsome. He is “smart.” He is a noble advocate of “social justice.” He is “the One.” He is “sort of god.” The fake classical columns flanking Obama during his acceptance speech at Invesco Stadium may have been a mistake but they were not an accident. An acquaintance of mine, in the midst of a discussion concerning the president’s bona fides, clinched the argument by pointing to the sky and exclaiming: “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s Obamaman.” Obama’s own campaign has not been shy to hype the Superman comparison.
It seems there is something about this president that positively attracts laudatory tags, hagiographic titles, resonant qualifiers, and metaphors of exaltation. And yet there is little question that there is also something shifty and casuistical about a president who has violated almost every promise he made while in electoral mode and even after assuming office — except for his commitment to “fundamentally transform” America.
Practically every decision and action he has taken belies the tenor of the adjectival encomia that attach to his name, whether it is his support, tacit or explicit, of some of the world’s worst dictators; his alienation of America’s traditional allies; his forcing through Congress and the Senate of a 2,000-page health care bill that nobody has read; his ignorant (or is it very clever?) scaffolding of the Copenhagen “accord” on global warming in defiance of the undeniable facts emerging from the Climategate scandal; his prosecution of American intelligence officers; his months-long dithering on the Afghanistan “good war”; his refusal to materially encourage the Iranian revolutionaries risking their lives to overturn a corrupt and oppressive regime; his constantly receding deadlines to this same nuclearizing regime; his tepid response to Islamic terrorism, a.k.a. “man-caused” disasters; his decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civil court, according the mastermind of 9/11 the same rights, privileges, and immunities of an ordinary citizen; his recent signing of an executive order granting INTERPOL extensive powers and protections on American soil, “making a foreign law enforcement agency exempt from American laws” and rendering American civilians and servicemen potentially vulnerable to arrest by the International Criminal Court; his order-of-magnitude multiplying of the national debt, which amounts to a war against the American dollar; his putative “reaching across the aisle,” which never even came close to happening; and of course the “transparency” he promised in the conduct of national affairs. Indeed, in this latter connection, Barack Obama may well be the most opaque president in American history, since very few of the documents and transcripts relating to his activities before he became president have been made public. And yet the paeans and accolades give little sign of abating.
Who is this man? Is he for all intents and purposes the domestic incarnation of Superman? Is he some sort of savior come to earth to rescue the nation and the planet from suffering and collapse? Is he, as many people seem to believe, a veritable messiah? Do the children really know what they are saying when they chant “Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, Barack Hussein Obama … you are number one”? Is he “the light” we are meant to walk forward in, as inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander seems to think? The “healing factor” that Jimmy Carter has hailed? A “combination of JFK and Martin Luther King,” according to the noted political authority Stevie Wonder? That “rare politician” blessed by the New York Times? Is he the “global” visionary that his Indonesian schoolmates commemorate him for being? Could he be the “hope of the entire world” as Louis Farrakhan sees him or Michael Moore’s “best hope we’ve had in a lifetime”? Perhaps he is a “descendent of kings”?
I am reminded of the celebrated seventeenth-century “false messiah” Sabbatai Zevi, who succeeded in deluding multitudes for several high-flying years before he was finally outed and converted to Islam. As Jonathan Freely remarks in The Lost Messiah (somewhat more accessible than Gershom Scholem’s encyclopedic Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah), Zevi “had an engaging personality” and, according to one of his disciples, “he was tall and imposing.” But he was also cited by many observers for “his bizarre behavior,” his contradictory statements, and his reversals of mood. Nevertheless, the honorifics kept pouring in and he answered to many lustrous names: “the Anointed,” “the Prophet,” “the Sabbath-born” (hence, “Sabbatai”), hakham (or “rabbi,” “sage,” a title conferred on him at an early age), “He Who Beheld the Splendor,” “the Illuminated,” “the King,” “the hope of Israel,” even AMIRAH (from the initials for the Hebrew words “Our Lord and King, His Majesty Be Glorified”), and, simply, “Our Lord.” It appears that Zevi was “sort of god.”
Similarly, the panegyrics that cling to Obama continue to abound. But we are at least entitled to ask whether they are merited, for their effect is more likely to mislead and distract than to reveal and clarify, as was the case with his historical predecessor. Indeed, though he may be ostensibly soaring through the empyrean, such epithets stick to the American president like barnacles to a sunken airliner. They are the verbal and iconic effluents of minds that have surrendered to the empty mantra of “hope and change,” intent on hiding from themselves what is nothing less than a massive dereliction, a species of millenarian fraud. They are memes of desire, tropes of self-deception, figures of the need to believe, rather than accurate descriptors of what stands visibly before us. Such unstinted adulation as Obama has received provides thick cover for what Peter Collier calls “a vain, small-minded, and morally anemic presidency.” The blind obeisance of “the people” and the legacy media — as well as the unseemly fabrications of the president’s minions and apostles, who must know the truth behind the charade — never cease to amaze.
What all these parabolic recitals show is that we have no clear idea who Barack Obama is. His essence is encrusted over with surrogate onomastics and radiant designations. That is their function. Every new anagogic label slapped on this media product, every logo and voucher, serves to obscure what the “package” actually contains. Each endorsement of transcendence is only a sign of a clandestine suppression.
But if we insist on applying metaphorical correlates to the object of our presumptive adoration, it might be more appropriate to regard the president as some kind of UFO — an unidentified flying Obama. Or better yet, as the ultimate balloon boy. An entire nation breathlessly follows his flight across the political skies, fixated on his trajectory, preoccupied with his actual whereabouts and eventual destination, only to discover in the course of time that he was never really where we thought he was. He was always elsewhere. Sadly — and this is inevitable — we will, sooner or later, learn that we were the credulous and willing dupes of an elaborate hoax.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it Superman? No, dear readers, it is none of these. It is balloon boy, and you’ve been had.