November 15 2013

The Limits of Charisma

Charlotte Hays

When did the Obama presidency begin to unravel?

We should have known on July 24, 2008 that we were heading for yesterday—for a broken presidency with a celebrity chief executive to whom the idea of actually governing seems never to occurred. July 24, 2008 was the date of candidate Barack Obama’s curious speech in Berlin.  

It was an Elvis moment. Crowds screamed and Americans at home swooned. This was not how our democracy had selected its leaders in the past. It was to be the United States’ first experiment with rule by charisma. Fouad Adjami takes note of this in a wisdom-filled piece in today’s Wall Street Journal:  

The current troubles of the Obama presidency can be read back into its beginnings. Rule by personal charisma has met its proper fate. The spell has been broken, and the magician stands exposed. We need no pollsters to tell us of the loss of faith in Mr. Obama's policies—and, more significantly, in the man himself. Charisma is like that. Crowds come together and they project their needs onto an imagined redeemer. The redeemer leaves the crowd to its imagination: For as long as the charismatic moment lasts—a year, an era—the redeemer is above and beyond judgment. He glides through crises, he knits together groups of varied, often clashing, interests. Always there is that magical moment, and its beauty, as a reference point.

Mr. Obama gave voice to this sentiment in a speech on Nov. 6 in Dallas: "Sometimes I worry because everybody had such a fun experience in '08, at least that's how it seemed in retrospect. And, 'yes we can,' and the slogans and the posters, et cetera, sometimes I worry that people forget change in this country has always been hard." It's a pity we can't stay in that moment, says the redeemer: The fault lies in the country itself—everywhere, that is, except in the magician's performance.

But disillusionment was inevitable. President Obama was our first demi-god (or maybe we don’t need that demi?) president. He had won no wars, fought no great battles over matters of concern to the commonweal. He had talked...and talked...and talked. 

Adjami compares the rise of President Obama to the rise of other charismatic leaders in the Third World.  Adjami writes:

Forgive the personal reference, but from the very beginning of Mr. Obama's astonishing rise, I felt that I was witnessing something old and familiar. My advantage owed nothing to any mastery of American political history. I was guided by my immersion in the political history of the Arab world and of a life studying Third World societies.

In 2008, seeing the Obama crowds in Portland, Denver and St. Louis spurred memories of the spectacles that had attended the rise and fall of Arab political pretenders. I had lived through the era of the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser. He had emerged from a military cabal to become a demigod, immune to judgment. His followers clung to him even as he led the Arabs to a catastrophic military defeat in the Six Day War of 1967. He issued a kind of apology for his performance. But his reign was never about policies and performance. It was about political magic.

No magic in yesterday’s CYO press conference. It was offensive that President Obama thinks that it is “legitimate” that he have to try to win back the trust of the country. Legitimate? You destroy health insurance for millions of citizens and then generously admit that maybe it’s legitimate for them to have concerns? You think it’s enough that you “completely get it” that it is “scary” to have your health insurance policy cancelled?

What we saw yesterday at the press conference was a man desperately trying to save himself. He proposed a fix for the mess he has created that may not be legal and probably won’t work. But he probably thinks that, if insurance companies can’t resolve the problem for him, he can just blame them.

But yesterday we saw something obscenely fascinating: a president who has gone from Elvis to Icarus, that other famous glider, in five tumult-filled years.

 

 

 

 

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