American Idols

Will the "cult of Obama" hurt his chances? Get real.

Maybe it started with the fainting. After a while you couldn't ignore video and reports of Barack Obama supporters, sardine-tin-packed into his monster rallies, blacking out and dropping to the floor as the candidate hit his applause lines. Or maybe it started with the music video "Yes We Can," a black-and-white, celebrity-studded mash-up of Obama's soaring South Carolina primary victory speech.

Somewhere on the Illinois senator's improbable march toward the Democratic nomination—and his remarkable steamrolling of the heretofore invincible Clinton family—the American commentariat tried to shake it off. Los Angeles Times columnist Joel Stein fretted about a "cult of Obama." New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, whose anti-Obama tirades have been reprinted in Hillary Clinton campaign mail, saw the campaign becoming "a cult of personality". Neoconservative Washington Post scold Charles Krauthammer, whose ideology has the most to lose from an Obama triumph, warned Americans that history was repeating: "As a teenager growing up in Canada, I witnessed a charismatic law professor go from obscurity to justice minister to prime minister, carried on a wave of what was called Trudeaumania." (Not as spine-chilling as Krauthammer's usual warning of this or that third-worlder becoming the next Hitler, but scary enough.)

However it started, Obama opponents are hoping that this taint—that his campaign has taken on a cultish air—will do what 26 primaries haven't done and sink his White House bid. In his February 19 victory speech after the Wisconsin primary, all-but-sure GOP nominee John McCain promised to save Americans from an "empty but eloquent call for change". Hillary Clinton has been hitting that note in almost every campaign speech, trying to make a virtue of her dullness. The more she has lost, the harder she's banged the drum. At a campaign stop this weekend in Rhode Island, she accused Obama of ... well, of summoning divine powers. "I could stand up here and say, let's just get everybody together," Clinton said. "Let's get unified. The sky will open, the light will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know that we should do the right thing, and the world will be perfect."

The problem for Clinton isn't just that 79 percent of her fellow Americans actually believe in celestial choirs. The problem for both of Obama's opponents is that being a "cult leader" is not a demerit in the quest for the presidency. Americans don't want a down-to-earth executive. They want Jesus Christ. They'll settle for Sun Myung Moon.

This is a fairly recent American problem. The presidency was designed as a limited office to be filled by smart-enough placeholders who wouldn't upset the other two branches of government too much. His authority was below the Constitution, above the Army, equal to the Congress and the Supreme Court. That started to change with the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, who, in order to win a war, swallowed up ever more power to arrest, to detain and to send men into battle. As the witty libertarian scholar Gene Healy shows in his book The Cult of the Presidency, Lincoln was a trend-setter: Subsequent presidents have been imbued with more and more power, especially in times of war and crisis. Americans have coped with this—and even egged it on—by expecting their president to be a towering, heroic figure.

For a long time the Democrats were part of the trend. Pictures of John F. Kennedy hang side-by-side with pictures of God's only son in countless stateside Latino homes and Irish bars. But the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal sparked an identity crisis. In 1976 and 1980 the party gave its nomination to Jimmy Carter, the antithesis of an imperial president, a man who ditched the traditional inaugural limo ride for a plebeian walk down Pennsylvania Avenue and who responded to one of a plenitude of crises by telling the nation: "I realise more than ever that as president I need your help."

The Republicans nominated Ronald Reagan and dispatched Carter with ease. For 12 long years the Democrats grimaced as the Republicans mastered the presidency and made the job look far too big for the likes of Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis. The Democrats took back power with Bill Clinton and watched him fritter it away with scandals and political compromises. Sure, the Clinton years were prosperous. But in 2000 the GOP convinced voters that Clinton had failed to make them proud. "So many talents," Governor George W. Bush said at the 2000 Republican convention. "So much charm. Such great skill. But, in the end, to what end? So much promise, to no great purpose."

It's hard to remember in the reflected glow of Al Gore's Academy Award and Nobel Prize, but that year, Bush was the candidate of the cult. His middle initial was emblazoned on bumper stickers and rally signs. Supporters would hold up three fingers and he'd flash the symbol back to them. And after September 11 the cult reached L. Ron Hubbard proportions. A man not favoured to win re-election became an epochal leader, an heir of Churchill and Lincoln. He was, in the words of some of his biographers, the Right Man and the Rebel-in-Chief.

Democrats didn't know quite what to do with this, and neither did a population of pundits that spent the years between a 9/11 and the Iraq war venerating the president. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" flight onto the USS Lincoln, in retrospect a blunder that started his unravelling, was seen at the time as an act of transcendent power, a leader alighting to earth and letting his people tap his halo. "I want to see him debate somebody like John Kerry or Lieberman or somebody wearing that jumpsuit," said MSNBC's Hardball host Chris Matthews. "I thought most of our guys were looking up like they were looking at Bob Hope and John Wayne combined on that ship."

The media jumped ship soon after that, but Bush's aura gilded his re-election. One of the most successful ads of the 2004 campaign, Ashley's Story, told of the day when Bush appeared at an Ohio campaign rally and learned a 9/11 victim's daughter was in the audience. He gave Ashley Faulkner a hug. She wept in full view of the cameras. "He's the most powerful man in the world," Faulkner said in the commercial, "and all he wants to do is make sure is that I'm safe, that I'm OK." The ad was run in nine states for a total of $14.2 million. Bush carried all but three of those states, and sent John Kerry packing.

No Democrat would argue that this was a healthy development for the country. I wouldn't argue that, either. Even in eclipse, the power and cultish appeal of this president has hobbled civil libertarians who argue that the executive branch shouldn't, for example, have the power to spy on conversations between Americans, or that declarations of war imbue the president with extraconstitutional powers.

Credit Barack Obama. He's said that his view of the presidency doesn't allow for those powers. But credit him, too, for building a far more powerful cult that Bush was able to manage without a catastrophe. In his speeches Obama jokes about just how much people love him after they hear him speak. "A light bulb will go off," he says, "a beam of light will shine down, and you will say to yourself, 'I need to vote for Barack.'" You can see why this sends steam shooting out of John and Hillary's ears. You can see why Republican-leaning pundits are finally starting to turn their guns away from the Clintons and onto this pied piper.

But if anyone thinks Obama's cultish appeal will turn voters away from him, they don't understand how much voters have come to expect from their candidates, how much they want them to be figures worth adoring. Secular as the Democrats are accused as being, they're not about to tone down the messiah.

David Weigel is an associate editor of Reason. This article originally appeared in The Guardian online.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • stephen the goldberger||

    That was a great article. Excellent commentary.

    Although I am intrigued as to what Obama's campaign will evolve into if he becomes the clear front runner, which he was in N.H. and blew it. We've only seen one real side of Obama's campaign (idealist challenger) and I am curious if it can really adapt to different situations. The general will be very interesting if Obama's the nominee.

    Which I think gets to one of the major issues regarding the media's (potentially soft) coverage of Obama, which is that they think he's interesting and exciting. And a good story is what the media really cares about above all else.

  • ||

    It doesn't mean anything bad electorally, sure, but isn't hero-worship (or just outright worship) of politicians a bad thing on its own?

  • Episiarch||

    Well, if Obama turns out to be the empty suit that many assume he is, it could be very bad for the Democrats.

    Hero-worship is bad enough, but hero-worship of an emperor with no clothes is very...disillusioning.

  • GILMORE||

    god, will people please quit with the "empty suit" line. It's getting fucking dull. At least come up with something new.

    Or more specific even. Arent ALL politicians empty suits, by definition?

    ok, right, except for (start porn music)...Ron Paul.

    Which may explain why he hasnt won dick.

  • ||

    If Obama gets elected President, I predict a huge shift back to a Republican congress in 2010. I just fear the ~2 years leading to that. Undoing socialism is very difficult both politically and practically.

  • Episiarch||

    empty suit empty suit empty suit empty suit empty suit empty suit empty suit empty suit empty suit empty suit empty suit empty suit empty suit empty suit empty suit empty suit empty suit empty suit

  • ||

    Hero-worship is bad enough, but hero-worship of an emperor with no clothes is very...disillusioning.

    You don't need to remind us of that.

  • ||

    Which is he, an empty suit, or an emperor with no clothes? Can't be both.

  • ||

    he's not even close to being a socialist, not even when he panders leftward to the unions (which just makes him a normal political operator, something in this case to sigh with relief about). get a grip.

    "Which is he, an empty suit, or an emperor with no clothes? Can't be both."

    HA! his empty suit walks away from him, winning hearts and votes with its inspiring rhetoric and leaving him behind, exposed and unaware.

  • ||

    ARMANI FOR VP!

  • Bingo||

    Vell, Obama's just zis guy, you know?

  • ||

    Shilling for Obama? From Weigel?! Well I never.

    Neoconservative [...] whose ideology has the most to lose from an Obama triumph

    Because a marginal difference in the way the continuing occupations and coming further invasions in the Middle East will be talked about - and the near total absence of leftist protest against them once their Dear Leader is in charge of them - is a deadly threat to the ideology of all the powerful states in human history. Sure.

    And listen, I know it doesn't come naturally to you, but in libertarian language, politicians never unironically "triumph." I understand that thoughts of Dear Leader give you powerful feelings that send you fumbling through the thesaurus with an id full of fascist hyperbole, but you're a professional fake libertarian. Shape the hell up.

  • ce||

    It's going to be a dull general election. Both Obama and McCain have speechifying talent but not much in the way of ideas.

  • ||

    ...that send you fumbling through the thesaurus with an id full of fascist hyperbole, but you're a professional fake libertarian.

    And here I was looking for an excuse, Drink!

    Thanks __

  • ||

    I haven't actually seen a "cult of Obama".

    I've seen stupid Obama supporters on the net whose enthusiasm is considerably higher than their IQ, but to be totally blunt -- I've seen McCain supporters, Ron Paul supporters, Hillary supporters, Thompson supporters, Kerry supporters, Dean supporters.....all who fit the bill.

    It's really a stock smear leveied against any candidate with enthusiasm. (What else can you fire at the popular candidate?) I'd think with Obama it'd probably be a shoe-in for an attack line, simply because many Americans tend to subconciously associate black oratory with the pulpit, and Obama clearly takes from that style of oratory.

    He's popular, he's winning, he's a gifted speaker, and he seems pretty clean as far as these things go. Really, attack wise, you're stuck with "He sounds Muslim" and "His supporters are a cult".

    On a tangent -- I just got into an argument claiming "No one's ever talking about policy. It's all empty words.". I had to point out that "No one is talking about X" and "No one is bothering to report on X" are two different things.

    The media has an aversion to reporting on policy, and they don't tend to play clips from the policy portions of ANYONE's speeches unless they say something way off the reservation.

  • ||

    Jeebus but I'm tired of overblown rhetoric. The only thing I expect from a President is to follow the oath of office. It would also be nice if there were some restoration of the notion of coequal branches. Not interested in a King, Messiah, Napoleon, Caesar, or reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard.

    Both will dazzle with hollow oratory; both will divert from promises; and either will fail to live up to ridiculous expectations once elected. This quadrennial Prom King mentality crap is just flat-assed getting old.

  • ||

    I've spent a year reading Ron Paul threads.

    Don't give me this "Obama Cult" shit.

  • ||

    You know what? When Barack Obama has a 90% approval rating and declares that Jesus chose him to be president, we can talk about a cult of personality.

    My friends, thhis is a talking point the Republicans made up because, my friends, John McCain, my friends, borrowed his charisma from Joe Lieberman, my friends.

  • Bingo||

    Blah blah blah my name is joe blah blah blah. Democrats woo! Blah.

  • ||

    Wow, that's quite the refutation there!

  • Bingo||

    joe:

    W had a cult of personality without going to the extremes that you mentioned for Obama (although it might take those extremes before your partisanship would ever allow you to admit it), and Paul obviously has/had one too. People want to elect a fucking messiah, and they treat presidential candidates and presidents as such.

    Plus don't you think your rapid, reflexive defense of Obama's crazy supporters is a little cult-like, hrmm?

  • stephen the goldberger||

    joe did you even read the article, or are you responding to what H&R commentators are saying? Weigel essentially agrees with you.

  • ||

    blah blah blah partisan partisan blah blah my name is Bingo!

  • ||

    stephen,

    I both read the article AND responded to what Hit & Run commenters were saying.

  • ||

    "You people" that do not see anything cultish in Obama supporters do not live in Illinois. My mom used to be on the coolaid, but she may have changed her mind. I'm not certain of that, but she forwards me all those emails from her friends revealing Osama's status as alternately either a Muslim, or a radical black Christian racist, or a dirty Jew, or whatever the latest claim is. Ma's liberal friends never send anything around that indicates he might be a socialist, so I'm assuming he must not be a good American instead.

  • ||

    subtract that last "not", or add another one...

  • Paul||

    god, will people please quit with the "empty suit" line. It's getting fucking dull. At least come up with something new.

    The suit is...half full?

  • ||

    "ok, right, except for (start porn music)...Ron Paul.

    Which may explain why he hasnt won dick."

    Wait a sec... Just what the hell kind of porno is this?

  • Paul||

    Both Obama and McCain have speechifying talent but not much in the way of ideas.

    And with this I must disagree. Obama has lots of ideas. Big ideas. And we know what we libertarians think about big ideas...

  • ||

    I for one like Barack Hussein Obama, i think he's a decent guy, but i don't like his policies. I do know a lot of young people like myself who are voting for Barack Hussein Obama simply because he's young(er) and makes a good speech, the same speech over and over "change and hope and hope and change, washington bad, time for change, let's use our hope, disenfranchised youth, community organizer, selma, hope and change and change and hope, hopemonger, the same old people doing the same old things! Hope!"

  • ||

    just read what i wrote, let me clarify: there are a lot of young people(young like me) who will be voting for Barack Hussein Obama, but not me, i don't find him very original at all.

  • ||

    god, will people please quit with the "empty suit" line. It's getting fucking dull. At least come up with something new.

    We will when he fills it with more than "hope" and "change". I don't respond well to overt emotionalism, it's wrong to vote for a guy simply because he's young black and charismatic. Where was his character when he voted all those times as present instead of yay or nay?

  • ||

    Hitting every talking point in the book, aren't you?

    So? What's the deal "Shane?" You a HIllary hack?

  • ||

    So? What's the deal "Shane?" You a HIllary hack?

    LMAO!

    no thank you. I'm just a free-thinker who doesn't think Obama should be praised based on how many people faint in his presence. When he comes up with some innovative ideas let me know, tell then i don't care how many 19 year olds wait in line to touch his robe. MLK, JFK, JHC, he is not. and i don't care for socialists either.

  • icl||

    Shane, if you are a free thinker, why do you regurgitate, right-wing talking points by using Obama's middle name as a racial slur? Feel free to criticize Obama on the issues, but you lose your credibility as soon as you start sounding like Ann Coulter.

  • Lev Strauss||

    Umm...this is Reason? You do not think a lot of young enthusiastic supporters in the frenzy of a general election campaign will be a liability? Umm...you guys ever hear of Ron Paul? He had other issues but they were always ready to pounce on the crazy supporters. We already have Che flags, Farakhan's support, which will bring some rather unsavory supporters, and god knows what else.

    Barack is going to encounter problems in other places and the current media love affair might cost him the job because he hasn't even been close to being vetted. The Republicans are holding the heavy fire for the election if they have it. Not only will this guy appear novice, but he'll get hit with flip flopping in a comical manner. Flip flops on NAFTA, marijuana decriminalization, Iraq pullout timelines and promises, plus all the uncalled for stuff to scare old people, etc. will make this anything but a cakewalk. Then you have gun control and the impression of Chicago politicians. I just hope it doesn't cause OJ/LA Riot like tensions again, I really hope enough old racists have died since then.

  • stephen the goldberger||

    Umm...this is Reason? You do not think a lot of young enthusiastic supporters in the frenzy of a general election campaign will be a liability? Umm...you guys ever hear of Ron Paul?

    I think its foolish to assume that Ron's enthusiastic supporters were a liability. The problem wasn't that they were enthusiastic, it was that they were computer programmers, IT people, and hermits. In other words, nerds. Just because they were enthusiastic was not a turn off, it was who they were fundamentally.

    Also Paul's message is a little harder to market to the mainstream than Obama's.

  • ||

    "They want Jesus Christ. They'll settle for Sun Myung Moon."

    Actually conservatives already accepted Moon. Not as president but as the "True Father" of conservatism. The right's leaders were smart. They knew years ago that without Moon's billions in overseas cash, his fronts, his know how the right never takes all three branches of the government in 2000 nor would the right be as authoritarian, union hating, or theocratic absent his help and guidance.

    Moon is the number one funder and molder of conservative thought over the last 30 years.

    No one else comes close.

  • ||

    Scroll down here for Is Barack Obama Running a Cult?


    People should have learned about cults 30 years ago before Moon had his way with us. Obama's following isn't remotely a cult but we can be sure we will hear that bilge all summer from the trained seals.

  • ||

    One of the best articles I've seen on Obama, his success in this campaign, and the momentum that is pushing him towards the presidency.

    Too bad Americans don't understand the job description.

  • ||

    by using Obama's middle name as a racial slur?

    What makes his middle name a racial slur?

  • ||

    Shane,

    Who do you support?

  • ||

    probably a 3rd party eventually, why?

  • ||

    Because I'm curious whether you refer to all the candidates with their full names, or just Obama.

    Do you discuss the positions of Ronald Ernest Paul as compared to those of Michael Dale Huckabee? Do you refer to the also-ran Democrats as Maurice Robert Gravel and Dennis John Kucinich?

    'Cause if it's just Obama, it sounds suspiciously smeary (and I say this as a non-Obama supporter). There are plenty of ways to attack the guy; repeating his middle name over and over because it "sounds scary" is lame, and makes it sound like there's nothing substantive with which to attack him.

  • ||

    Also Paul's message is a little harder to market to the mainstream than Obama's

    Liberalism (economically speaking) is easy to market because it's the easy way out. The solution to every societal problem is "throw other people's money at it."
    The Republicans have the same motto, they just resort to borrowing other people's money instead of taking it.

  • Freeranger||

    Conservatives sell irrational fear. Obama sells irrational hope. It's all bullshit, but I'd rather our nation were hopeful than fearful. "Rattional" would be nice, but get real.

  • SS25-Topol||

    I believe Obama's cult will begin deflating, probably within a month or so of Hillary punching out of this mess. The longer she sticks around, the better Obama will do and the more fervent the cult will get. The ability of a natural politico like Obama to contrast himself and his competently run campaign with the manufactured, self-absorbed circus of the Clinton operation and candidate is like a Yankees pitcher throwing softballs to Hank Aaron...he's gonna hit'em out of the park every time and the crowd will go wild for it.

    John McCain, unlike Hillary Clinton, is no softball pitcher dumped in a big-league game....he's closer to Sandy Koufax than softball in the politics game. The narraritive of his personal story is incredibly powerful, and the only conceivable antidote for an old white guy to deal with the "colorful" (no pun intended!) background Mr. Obama brings to the table. Whether you agree with McCain or not, and I mostly don't, I can't deny the guy Believes in what he's doing - again totally unlike the HILL-9000. He's also smarter on his feet than Hillary Clinton, has a sharper wit, has a temper that when it flares is good show and doesn't make you wince away like looking at the aftermath of a car-wreck which is what I do when Clinton says "shame on you, Barack Obama!" It's also important to note he does not feel under siege from MSM, and he doesn't engender their dislike by the way he treats MSM in return.

    Obama has not had to compete in a general election against a real opposition candidate, he owes Jeri Ryan as much as anyone or anything within himself for his current job. In McCain he encounters someone who is equally good as a showman in the political theater, and ultimately it is those qualities that win the Big One. Shrill attack politics is only useful for pols in a race where both have a tin ear, it always is a disaster against an excellent showman (like HILL-9000's huzbot, Bill). McCain is too smart and too good for that, and he's a good showman himself. I pretty much am disgusted with both of these characters regarding their ideologies and what they wish to inflict on national finance and my freedoms, but as a political observer, this is going to be a heck of a race between two natural showman in the political theater, once the amateurs are completely off the stage anyways.

  • ||

    Some of Obama's supporters go overboard, but the man seems level-headed to me. I see nothing cultish about him. He talks like a talented professor in Constitutional Law and someone you might pick to edit the Harvard Law Review. Because that is what he is. He is a member of the Ivy League elite, along with FDR and JFK. He does not pretend to be anything else.

    He is refreshing because he does not hide his roots, or pretend to be an awe-shucks "down-home" folksy guy, or pretend that he likes to shoot animals, or any of the other sickening stereotypes that so many American politicians embrace.

    His gift is that he can make pedestrian, commonsense goals such as healthcare reform seem exalted, and he can motivate young people to help reach them. That is an excellent quality for a leader.

  • ||

    The messiah (small m) wants to raise taxes by $200 billion according to this week's Wall Street Journal. Obama's bound to let the flock down--he is a bubble that will burst when pricked by the ever sharp pin of reality. Those of us in Illinois know he's corrupt (see Chicago Tribune on Rezko indictment) The only question is will he suffer the fate of all other mere mortals who inspire such devotion (the Beatles, Elvis) before the election or after. It may be after because McCain may be too much of a chivalrous warrior to do the negative stuff it will take to break the BO halo in the general, in which case he will probably implode in office in the face of the realities which bring most Presidents down low--jihadi nuclear terror threat, economic challenges, tax and spend, etc.

  • MRA||

    Cultish or not, I haven't found Obama supporters who really know what he stands for or have thought through his policies. He's a great politician (good at speeches, quick-thinking in debates, and personable), but I can't stand his policies.

    I asked a friend--whose opinions I respected 6 months ago--why he supported Obama, even though he disagreed with about 70% of Obama's stuff.
    His answer was that even though he disagreed with much of what Obama stood for, he thought this country needed "change" and that Obama is exactly what this country needs. Apparently my friend doesn't realize he sounds like a moron when he says that.

    Still no word on what that "change" actually is.

    I'm just glad my friend isn't a US citizen.
    (And yes I know, one friend is a poor sample size. But you don't have to look too deeply into the media to find similar answers.)

  • Nike Dunk Low||

    is good

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