What more can he do after November 4? Obama, a black man, will soon be the most powerful person in the world. What so many wished him has come to pass. The symbol has been planted. That which he was called to do — by the people, (by God?) — is now a reality. What more can he be in the real world of politics, by definition a vile form of mental sport, without detracting from that pure, elevated image in which his brilliant campaign manager David Axelrod fashioned him?
Just reflect on the full weight of expectation — hope and change of every size and shape — and one understands that no human could ever deliver this. Anyone who pretends to provide unlimited change is bound to disappoint the disparate groups that helped him to power. Bush, that wretched, cursed, hapless Bush, the most undervalued man on the planet, may well serve as a handy all-round excuse for a while, but that defense will soon wear thin: the president will have to make choices, and when he makes choices Obama will have to select preferences and so alienate interest groups.
No political act Obama and his team can devise can ever eclipse the historic moment of his election. This creates a stirring paradox of the Obama Phenomenon: Obama’s triumph is not the beginning of a new chapter, it’s the beginning of the end of the myth that made his triumph possible.
The Obama that won the election is not made of flesh and blood. He’s a myth. He doesn’t sweat, he never raises his voice, there are no sins and no remorse. No one knows who he is exactly. He’s not white, yet not really black either. He’s a devout but no ordinary Christian, yet he has an African Arabic name — Barack (which means ‘blessed’, like the Hebrew Baruch). And no criticism ever leaves a stain. Neither does he contradict himself when he contradicts himself, because everything he says is true, even though much of what he says seems contradictory. Even the rumors about where he was born — some fanatical anti-Obamists claim it was Nairobi not Hawaii — and his links with criminals and radical left-wing activists seem not to detract, but to reinforce the mysterious aura that envelops him. He is the man we were waiting for; he says so himself. He will bring change, and with it salvation.
While the campaign lasted he was a symbol, a stranger who could only deliver his message of salvation if we believed in him. He was to liberate us from the idea that race and ethnicity play no role in the human circus, that wars are inevitable in human history, and that the climate is beyond mankind’s control. He tells us that we can make the world the way we want it, and that man is intrinsically good. No more hunger or poverty, he promises; no disease, no illiteracy, no AIDS or malaria, no despair or unemployment or hopelessness or wretchedness or accidents or bad luck. One woman remarked with a blissful smile on television after the election that she would never have to worry again about her mortgage or the price of a full tank of gas.
Hope and change — how could anyone base a political down-to-earth program on these two utopian and deeply religious ideas? Together with Axelrod and a gullible media, Obama has laid the foundations in these last few months for a secular-religious cult with himself at the center. Look again at the faces of his supporters in the crowd when he made his victory speech in Chicago: they glowed with religious zeal. They passionately loved him. They completely trusted him. He would lead them to a land without want or constraint, to a land without sin and without evil. He gave them rhetoric in words and images of a kind that the secular liberal community had not allowed itself to take to its heart for many years. He offers the hope of a meaningful existence. He offers a chance to break through the daily grind, the dream of change that so many modern films and novels provide: to break with that petty middle-class existence. Life can be grand and stirring, Obama seems to tell us; look at me, a black man who makes the impossible happen, and look at what happens in the crowds that I draw, in which individuals become one in the experience of a blessed and intensely compassionate and collective existence.
Axelrod, the genius behind the Obama phenomenon, knows that after the elections, the triumph of the myth inevitably augured the demise of the myth. He must now transform Obama into a politician who will have to get his hands dirty. He must allow the intoxication of the myth to dissipate, without betraying the trust of the voter. Never has such a transformation been achieved without damage. That intoxication is ideal fuel for a revolution, but this would be unimaginable in today’s America. When they sober up from their intoxication, the faithful will be livid — and in two year’s time Congress will likely slip out of Obama’s grip.
If the Obama myth was a real legend, he would somehow disappear during his first night in the White House, leaving the world in profound confusion and desperately longing for his return. We would study his two myth-making books, his healing speeches, and a hundred years from now they would discover that he had lived a further 77 years, 77 days and 77 hours in a monastery in Tibet, praying continuously for the fate of our lonely universe until he died and his body floated away across the white peaks of the Himalayas.
But this isn’t going to happen. Instead, Obama will give speeches about the Gross National Product and subsidies for the auto industry. The myth giveth, the myth taketh away.