Politics & Policy

Eternal Hero’s Return

Obama the man will have a hard time living up to the ideal.

Barack Obama doesn’t exist.

Oh, sure, there is a U.S. senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, who appears well on his way to being the Democratic presidential nominee.

Barack Obama the Man exists. Barack Obama the Ideal does not — though few Democrats want to believe that right now.

As former Bush e-communications strategist Patrick Ruffini has noted, Obama is not being sold as a political leader who supports certain policies. He’s being sold as a brand that makes you feel certain feelings — among them, hope, optimism, and a sense that he represents “change we can believe in.” Don’t ask what kind of change. Just Do It. Because You’re Worth It. Yes, We Can.

While the mania and faux-messianic themes (“we are the ones we’ve been waiting for”; Oprah’s declaration that he is “The One”) are more explicit than in previous election cycles, the yearning for that perfect, unifying candidate seems to come every four years, and every time the Democrats wind up disappointed. The concept of the principled liberal who can win over support from left, right, and center — the political savior; the eternal hero — is resurrected quadrennially by the secular Left. Democrats are now swooning again — sometimes literally — over inexpressible hopes for transformative change that no flesh-and-blood politician could deliver.

Obama, as well meaning as he seems to be, is a human being with flaws. What’s more, he’s a politician, capable of compromising high-minded principles for momentary political gain. The Washington Post noted a high-profile example on Saturday: Obama has said repeatedly that he would agree to use public financing for the general election if his Republican opponent pledged to do the same. John McCain has said that he’s game. But now that Obama’s campaign cash-flow has the power of Mount Saint Helen’s and the reliablity of Old Faithful, suddenly a spending cap isn’t so appealing, and he’s hedging.

There have been other not-so-flattering, strikingly earthbound moments during this campaign. The Washington Times has noted that presidential candidate Obama has taken far more centrist positions on a variety of issues than senatorial candidate Obama ever did. As a state legislator, Obama worked on legislation with health-care industry lobbyists — something he deems an unforgivable sin now that it is one of his lines of attack against Hillary Clinton.

But a candidate with consistent views and a list of legislative accomplishments isn’t what Democratic voters yearn for — ask Joe Biden, Bill Bradley, Joe Lieberman, or Bob Kerrey. Democrats want to be romanced. They want easy-on-the-eyes candidates who make their hearts palpitate, who make them feel that utopia is just around the corner, who can usher in the secular progressive equivalent of the Kingdom of God.

Hollywood is part of the problem. Tinseltown constantly teases Democrats with onscreen depictions of ideal presidents of the Left. On The West Wing, President Jeb Bartlett combined the best of FDR and Bill Clinton (a catalogue of West Wing plotlines inspired by the Clinton years can be found here), while Martin Sheen subtly mimicked John F. Kennedy in the role. West Wing creator Sorkin’s earlier film The American President likewise contributed to the impossible Democratic ideal of wise, incorruptible, and unapologetically progressive power.

Hollywood is the appropriate locus for such political yearning — as it is a small step away from waiting for the Man on a White Horse: the decisive leader, a stranger to the broken status quo, who sweeps in and cleans up the town, often with semi-dictatorial tones. Democrats would deny that they want that, of course. But nearly every cycle, a large chunk of the Democratic base and more than a few prominent voices publicly fall in love with a candidate, whom they declare to be “the second coming of JFK.”

Kennedy nostalgia — or Kennedy mythology, since it normally operates with complete ignorance of his policies, like the tax cuts and fervent anti-Communism — might very well be the dominant influence on modern Democratic-party psychology. JFK’s actual presidential policies don’t matter: the circumstances of his assassination and the narrative built around it lifted him irrevocably into the progressive pantheon, as the incarnation of the Eternal Democratic Hero. A Presidents’ Day Gallup poll found that, offered a choice of any former president living or dead to be the next president, a plurality of Americans (23 percent) favored John F. Kennedy over any other.

The thing is, we’ve seen this movie before. (Perhaps literally, if Obama is the Redford-esque candidate who drops controversial liberal stands in order to get elected on empty cheer and charm before asking, “Now what?” Is Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In” any more meaningless than “For a better way: Bill McKay!”)

Former president Clinton vacationed off Martha’s Vineyard in yachts filthy with Kennedys; he quoted Kennedy regularly; and even compared himself to JFK while admitting the Lewinsky affair to his cabinet. A centerpiece of the 1992 Democratic Convention was the photo of a teenage Bill Clinton shaking hands with JFK, a perfect visual representation of “the torch being passed to a new generation.” That image — which Time called “the anointing touch” — appeared in Clinton’s ads.

John Kerry would try the same thing. America was treated to an image of the young hanging around on JFK’s yacht. In a story headlined, “Links Between JFK, Kerry Unavoidable” the AP declared,

. . . a nation is reminded of the similarities between the two men: Both Democrats and Roman Catholics. Products of a privileged upbringing and naval war heroes. Massachusetts senators determined to oust Republicans from the White House. Candidates campaigning with a nation under threat, one from a familiar Cold War enemy, the other faceless terrorists.

Before Kerry and Clinton, presidential hopefuls Gary Hart and (believe it or not) Jimmy Carter were also compared to JFK. This year, the comparisons have been no less explicit, and in Obama, we have one of the few candidates who is compared to both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury managed to be funny for a change as he portrayed his protagonist’s daughter, a smitten Obama supporter, contemplating the challenges her hero faces running as, “The First Black Kennedy.”

But when everybody’s the next JFK, nobody’s the next JFK. (Republicans have been mocked — perhaps deservedly — for their Reagan nostalgia, but they’ve got the opposite problem: Instead of insisting every successive candidate is “the next Reagan,” Republicans seem genuinely stunned that a once-in-a-generation political talent only appears once in a generation. Reagan, by the way, finished a close second to JFK in Gallup’s Presidents’ Day poll, with 22 percent of the vote.)

We’ve heard this story before, and we know it doesn’t end well. Every aspiring Democratic president deemed “the next JFK” has revealed feet of clay — be it from scandal, domestic- or foreign-policy failures, a sense of opportunities squandered or great promise unfulfilled. In every instance, there was always a man behind the curtain whom it became impossible to ignore.

Could Barack Obama go on to be a successful president? It’s possible, and if he attains the office, Americans of all political stripes will wish him well in his duties to protect the country. But history, and human nature, tell us that no president could live up to the inhuman expectations being created at this moment.

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for NRO.

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