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Obamaphiles Still Longing for Camelot

Despite setbacks, failures, and outright betrayals, Obamaphiles in the intelligentsia are finding it hard to fall out of love with "the One"

Gene Healy
August 9, 2011

President Obama's approval ratings are plummeting along with the Dow, and he's just lost his stare-down with House Speaker John Boehner while presiding over a historic downgrade of U.S. credit.

I don't know about peak oil theory, but it seems clear that we must have passed peak hope some time ago. The Chris Matthews-style "thrill up the leg" is rarer these days.

Even so, Obamaphiles in the intelligentsia are finding it hard to fall out of love with "the One."

Consider the unintentionally hilarious tongue-bath of an essay in the latest Esquire, in which novelist Stephen Marche asks, "How Can We Not Love Obama?" Savor the savior, Marche commands, this multitude-containing "world-historical soul" we're blessed to have as our president.

"Contemplate him" like a "painting by Vermeer," a Rolling Stones guitar lick, "a Peyton Manning pass or any other astounding, ecstatic human achievement." ("Lo-oving 'O' / is easy 'cause he's beautiful ...")

"Lad" mags are rarely sources of sound political insight, but we expect better from Yale law professors (... er, don't we?). Last week, Yale's Charles Fried, an "Obamacon" who served as solicitor general under President Reagan, wrote in the Daily Beast that Obama's difficulties stem from the fact that he's just too darned "intelligent, analytical" and intellectually honest. "Obama Is Too Good For Us," you see. (Shall we dissolve the People and elect a new one?)

Moving further left, Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum recently confessed he'd suppressed his doubts about the Libyan intervention because he "literally trust[s] [Obama's] judgment over my own"—"he's smarter than me, better informed...and more farsighted."

All good reasons, to be sure, for suspending critical thinking about a war that the president's own secretary of defense admits isn't "a vital interest of the U.S." and which his own attorney general believes to be illegal.

Even when they reject their political savior, as psychology professor Drew Westen does in an interminable essay in Sunday's New York Times, Obamaphiles find themselves unable to renounce political salvationism itself.

"Bewitched by his eloquence," Westen writes, many failed to notice Obama's character defects: an "aversion to conflict" and a craven desire to please.

It didn't have to be this way, Westen laments. If only Obama had been a more effective demagogue: When he took office, "the public was desperate for a leader who would speak with confidence, and they were ready to follow wherever the president led."

A creepy notion, but also—thankfully—always a false hope.

In February 2009, a month after Obama took office, I wrote my first column for The Examiner: "Turns out that, no he can't." Despite the "hopefest" aura surrounding the inauguration, I argued, "the smart money says that by 2012, Obama will look a lot more like Jimmy Carter than FDR."

No presidential candidate had ever done more to stoke Americans' grandiose expectations for what was supposed to be a constitutionally limited office. Yet Obama won the presidency at the beginning of an era of long-needed austerity, one in which we'll be paying good and hard for the outsized promises of past saviors in chief.

Those Greek columns at the 2008 Democratic National Convention were pretty, but they were made of Styrofoam; the guy standing in front of them was, like those who came before, a professional vote-grubber, not a worthy object of adulation.

The last thing we need right now is the Obamaphiles' messianic approach to the presidency -- messianism got us into this mess.

Nobel laureate James Buchanan called the "public choice" approach to economics he helped create "politics without romance." In this era of limits, we need a presidency without romance.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of "The Cult of the Presidency." This column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.



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