Speaking to business leaders in the White House in mid-January, President Obama delivered his remarks in a fatigued monotone. He claimed to be “incredibly optimistic about our prospects.” But he didn’t sound incredibly optimistic. His diction was as phlegmatic as his delivery, and might have been cribbed from the lecture notes of a business-school professor. The president spoke of the “inflection point” America had reached, the “hopeful trend” he himself had discerned, and the laudable work of people who were “ahead of the curve” in “insourcing” jobs.
If the speech were a color, it would have been gray.
The president’s orations these days are mere ghosts of the rhetorical flights of 2008, which (to those with a taste for a certain kind of secular sermonizing) did not lack emotive power. In 2008, Obama, preaching of the place “where the perfection begins,” could reach the high notes. His vocal register is now audibly narrower. When he delivers an uplifting line today, his voice dips when it ought to soar, and the words drop to earth with a thud. Precluded from using the visionary language of 2008, with its relish of a salvation that never came, the president has fallen back on the rhetorical equivalent of autopilot.
Obama’s speech-making frustrations are only the most obvious expression of the deeper problem of his presidency. As a candidate, he did not allow for any destiny other than epochal success, and he seems as surprised as the most intoxicated of his supporters to find that history has played him false. “And we didn’t know at the time,” he said in a recent reminiscence of 2008, “that we were going to go through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. We didn’t know that we were going to go through this extraordinary financial crisis. And so a lot of the last three years have been just dealing with emergencies.” Like Conrad’s Lord Jim, he would have been a hero, if only there hadn’t been an emergency.
Deserted, at least for the moment, by both Fortune and the pollsters, the president exhibits all the sullenness of an actor playing a part he didn’t audition for. Happy warrior? Michael Hastings, in his new book The Operators, portrays an Obama who whined when he was asked to pose for pictures with American troops in Baghdad. “He didn’t want to take pictures with any more soldiers,” a State Department official told Hastings. “He was complaining about it.”
White House reporters depict an apathetic chief executive holed up, much of the time, with a small group of loyalists, a loner who fights shy of all but a few intimates. Obama “endures with little joy the small talk and back-slapping of retail politics, rarely spends more than a few minutes on a rope line, refuses to coddle even his biggest donors,” Scott Wilson wrote in the Washington Post in October. “His relationship with Democrats on Capitol Hill is frosty, to be generous. Personal lobbying on behalf of legislation? He prefers to leave that to Vice President Biden, an old-school political charmer.” More often than not, the New York Times’s Helene Cooper reported in December, the president “keeps Congress and official Washington at arm’s length, spending his down time with a small — and shrinking — inner circle of aides and old friends.”
The president, in other words, has retired to the bunker. His fits of petulance suggest that he finds his situation anomalous, a deviation from the way it was supposed to be. In fact Obama is reenacting one of modern liberalism’s more familiar dramas. William Jennings Bryan, electorally crucified on his cross of gold, was liberalism’s first disappointed messiah. President Wilson, whose messianic pretensions H. L. Mencken laid bare in his essay “The Archangel Woodrow,” was reprising the role of embattled redeemer when he was felled by a stroke not long after a speech in Pueblo, Colo., the climax of his doomed effort to persuade the Senate to ratify the League of Nations and his own quixotic belief that God had ordained him to proclaim a perpetual peace. Adlai Stevenson, in the eyes of liberals, was a prophet without honor in his own country, while John F. Kennedy has, ever since his assassination, been improbably depicted as a martyr who died not at the hands of a deranged Marxist, but through the machinations of a pharisaical establishment determined to resist the progressive millennium.
All our Western and American notions of messianic salvation owe something to the longings and expectations of Jews. In his classic work Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, a study of Jewish messianism in the 17th century, Gershom Scholem observed that after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, Jews evolved two ways of thinking about the messiah. The first was frankly utopian. A peaceable kingdom would be inaugurated by a victorious messiah of the House of David; the regenerated world would possess “all the qualities of a golden age, including miraculous manifestations and a radical transformation of the natural order.”
The second messianic strain envisaged a heroic messiah who, unlike the victorious Davidic savior, who was to follow him, would fail to redeem the world and usher in the millennium. “The figure of the messiah of the House of Joseph, who would fall at the gates of Jerusalem fighting against the gentiles,” Scholem writes, “constituted a new mythological trait whose function it was to differentiate between the messiah of catastrophe and that of utopia.”
Messianic eschatology entered America’s cultural bloodstream with the radical Protestants who settled New England in the 17th century. The “Lord had assembled his Saints together” in the New World, Edward Johnson wrote in his 1654 Wonder-Working Providence of Sions Saviour in New England, “the place where the Lord will create a new Heaven, and a new Earth in, new Churches, and a new Common-wealth together.” Many of the progressives who in the 19th and 20th centuries drove liberalism in the direction of socialism came from evangelical and Social Gospel families; they transmuted the chiliastic fervor of their hereditary creed into a millennial politics concerned with secular rather than supernatural redemption. Politics became a messianic enterprise; politicians were prophets, and educators were secular priests. The teacher, John Dewey said, was “the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God.” The various socialisms that progressives embraced had their own millennial character; in To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson showed how deeply Marx, in his pursuit of the peaceable kingdom of Communism, was indebted to the messianic vision of the Old Testament prophets.
Once messianic thought invaded secular politics, those with an appetite for it were bound to fall back on the idea of a disappointed, Josephic messiah, if only because politics, being a tool of mundane practical life, is radically imperfect and can never be the instrument of redemptive passions that aspire to a more-than-mortal — a Davidic — perfection. The notion of a failed messiah, battling evildoers against the most intimidating odds, allows the enthusiast to experience all the satisfactions of messianic ecstasy even as it consoles him when, at the end of the day, the world remains as humdrum as it was before. “No possible reform,” Santayana says, “will make existence adorable or fundamentally just.” Deep down, the most visionary liberal, I think, knows this; he therefore embraces a strain of messianism that allows him to get eschatologically drunk even as it prepares him for the inevitable sublunary hangover.
Talking to regular “folks,” as Obama might call them, who continue to believe in the president, I’ve found that they have worked out for themselves a narrative that pretty closely follows the disappointed-messiah line. The president remains for them a figure of special promise; but the obstinate gentiles (“intransigent Republicans”), blind to his virtues, are intent on thwarting him at every turn.
It’s a narrative that has in some measure been shaped by Obama’s political operatives. The president, to be sure, would like nothing better than to put the whole messianic business behind him; he has gone out of his way to disclaim the hallucinations of 2008. In December he told 60 Minutes that he didn’t overpromise. He doesn’t control the weather. The extravagant talk about rolling back the waters and healing the planet apparently came, like the warranty for a new dishwasher, with the sort of fine-print qualifications no one bothers to read. But those who embrace a myth have to live with it. Even liberals, looking back on the mania and delirium of 2008, talk about who did and who didn’t “swallow the Kool-Aid.” Obama’s revisionist history, with its implication that he campaigned merely as a good technician in the Poppy Bush sense, with no investment in the “vision thing,” won’t wash.
Obama’s 2012 operation knows it, and at some level Obama does too. If the 2008 campaign retailed a messiah of social utopia — the proclaimer of the gospel of “hope and change” — in 2012 the machine is readying a retooled savior — a battle-scarred, Josephic messiah — for the campaign trail. In 2008 the Davidic candidate stood above the fray; in 2012 a Josephic Obama is before the gates of Washington, valiantly grappling with the uncircumcised heathens — the Republicans, the rich, the retrograde financiers — who would sack the progressive temples of health care and public-sector spending. In 2008 a Davidic Obama preached pacific sermons about unity, cooperation, and post-partisan comity; the new, Josephic Obama is a fiercely factional street fighter, an ideologue who favors draconian environmental policies and is sympathetic to the anarchism of the Occupy movement, a class-warfare desperado who emulates, by turns, Teddy Roosevelt and Che Guevara. Emerging from his bunker to do battle with the 1 Percent, he urges his foot soldiers to “punish” their enemies and promises “hand-to-hand combat” on Capitol Hill if Republican majorities are returned.
It is characteristic of the Josephic narrative that it prepares the enthusiast for eventual disappointment. Obama in his new, Josephic incarnation has suggested that if he fails in his mission, the blame must be laid not on him but on an America unworthy of his high mandate. Looking at the rest of the country from the coign of vantage of a Hawaiian beach, the president sees a “soft” and self-indulgent people who won’t eat their peas and don’t pay their “fair share.” If “the summer is ended and we are not saved,” it is because we don’t deserve to be.
The idea of messianic redemption is America’s primal poetry. Its imagery inspired Winthrop’s “city on a hill” and Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom.” The country’s greatest poet, Walt Whitman, cherished, David S. Reynolds has written, “a messianic vision of himself as the quintessential democratic poet who could help cure the many ills of his materialistic, politically fractured society.” Emerson, although he too had absorbed the messianistic eschatology of radical Protestantism, tempered it with an insistence on man’s frailty and on the painful limitations of his condition. But if the American intellect is pledged to Emerson’s temperate philosophy, its heart is committed to what William James called the pathological optimism of Whitman. When the American statesman prepares the country for its rendezvous with one or another destiny, he draws, not on Emerson’s carefully hedged essays, but on Whitman’s unqualified poetry. Liberals such as Barack Obama hear America singing when they paint the brave new world of the progressive future; Ronald Reagan’s conservative revolution was suffused with the same music.
But should we countenance a messianic poetry that all too easily nourishes arrogance and delusion? In The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, Peter Beinart argues that America needs a “jubiliant undertaker” who can “bury the hubris of the past,” a hubris nourished in part by the country’s messianic traditions. Beinart echoes thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr and George Kennan, who deplored what Niebuhr called the “egoistic elements” of the messianic temperament.
Thing is, this messianic poetry is about the only poetry we collectively possess; and it is as difficult to govern men without poetry as it is to govern children without treats. Take out of the American romance the messianic and prophetic tropes that descend from the English Bible, scrap the Gettysburg Address and Jefferson’s belief that America is a “chosen country,” and you are left with a few pages of parchment and a handful of abstract constitutional formulas. That a poetry is not literally true, that it may at times nourish delusion, is not a sufficient warrant for getting rid of it. “A mixture of a lie,” Bacon says, “doth ever add pleasure. Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men’s minds, vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds, of a number of men, poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?”
Messianic poetry has its place in American life, for no people can bear too much reality. We need magic in our daylight, and the sense of purpose that comes from the sense of participation in a providential enterprise. In the hands of statesmen of the caliber of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan, the messianic magic has done a great deal of good. The American millennialist may go too far; he may mistake the dream for the reality; he may fail to strike an Emersonian balance between the poetry of life and its prose. But Americans have, in addition to their quixotic idealism, a stubborn strain of practical sense. They may be deceived for a time by charlatanism, but in the end they always put their house in order.
– Mr. Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author, most recently, of Pathology of the Elites: How the Arrogant Classes Plan to Run Your Life.