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.