THE delirium Barack Obama arouses among his supporters at home and abroad--a great many of them in the news media--is unprecedented in recent times. Comparisons with John and Robert Kennedy soon became a cliche, but when they were alive neither of those two Democratic martyrs of the 1960s aroused such hopes among such a diversity of audiences. In fact the last president-elect with a recognizably similar appeal was Dwight D. Eisenhower, a supposedly unifying figure above politics who promised to end an unpopular war and succeeded the thoroughly discredited (as it then seemed) Harry S. Truman in 1953.
At times of millennial hopes, not everything is quite what it appears. Notwithstanding his impressive popular vote, if ever there was an "establishment" candidate in a general election, Obama was it. At least superficially, his values and instincts are those of the academic, journalistic, and cultural elite that embraced him so enthusiastically. Much of his strongest support came from campuses--although, as some commentators pointed out, less of the energy (as distinct from mere votes) seemed to flow from today's proverbially passive students than from faculty members who recalled a more activist era.
Carlisle, Pennsylvania, is a small town a bit like Kingston, Ontario. Founded in the mid-eighteenth century as the seat of Cumberland County, it has a picturesque downtown full of historic buildings and two distinguished but very different campuses: Dickinson College, a private liberal arts institution, and the US Army War College. Carlisle also has two things that distinguish it demographically from most college towns: a white industrial working class and a significant black population, many of them the descendants of slaves who escaped from Maryland 50 miles to the south. Gettysburg is not far away.
To someone who had hitherto spent his adult life in places completely dominated by big universities, Carlisle was a drastic change when I moved there in 2007, just as the presidential primary campaign was getting under way. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that all my friends and former colleagues were Obama supporters. Professors in famous American universities used to boast that they didn't know anyone who had voted for Ronald Reagan, a president who carried 49 of the 50 states. Like Bush since 2001, Reagan was loathed by most academics (at least if we exclude economists and engineers). His attractiveness to so many non-academics has much to do with the long-term alienation of professors from the rest of the country, as well as with their seemingly endless search for a liberal Reagan, a successful presidential candidate they could call their own.
With Obama they finally found one. Columnists often wrote early in the campaign that he reminded them less of a conventional politician than of a professor. To me he seemed more like a university administrator, a talented dean or provost who had been offered a presidency at an unexpectedly early age. Those who consider universities centres of freedom, opportunity, and good sense found such impressions to his advantage.
IN Carlisle there was no such unanimity of opinion. Hillary Clinton won the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, though not the universities, by a huge margin. During the fall campaign Pennsylvania was considered a battleground state by both Obama's campaign and John McCain's. In Carlisle itself, a demographer would have found a nearly perfect correlation between the socio-economic status of a neighbourhood and the signs displayed in its yards or windows. Where the inhabitants were rich, academic, or black, there were Obama signs as far as the eye could see. In white working- and middle-class neighbourhoods McCain signs predominated. Out in the country Obama was nearly invisible. Here and there one saw an anomaly: a Prius with a McCain bumper sticker; a beat-up pickup truck with a gun rack and one for Obama. But by and large people lived up to their stereotypes.
Then there were my immediate neighbours, all of them white, many of them old, some of them veterans. While not entirely of one mind, they were heavily for McCain. One widely noticed change from earlier elections is that every interest group now uses e-mail to share Internet material that has the effect of making its collective views more extreme and polarized than they would be without such easy forms of stimulation. Some of my neighbours forwarded messages (who knew where they originated?) to large groups of supposedly like-minded people charging that Obama was a Muslim and had sworn to take the oath of office on the Koran.
When I pointed out that he was a longtime member of a Christian church in Chicago, I encountered total silence, as if the Muslim charge was not meant to be taken literally and was really a symbol of something else about him that my electronic interlocutors couldn't quite put their finger on. After his 20-year affiliation with the black-nationalist minister Jeremiah Wright became well known, Obama the Muslim was transmuted for the crankiest of them into Obama the Antichrist, complete with pertinent quotations from the Book of Revelation. This time other addressees protested, and I left them to argue eschatology without me.
The fact that these charges were so preposterous kept them from having any noticeable impact on the election, in which Obama won a higher percentage of the white vote than Al Gore in 2000 or John Kerry in 2004. But they had another effect that was less desirable: they encouraged the already-besotted press not to investigate its favourite nearly as thoroughly as it usually does with a presidential candidate who seems to come out of nowhere. With enemies like these, the news media seemed to be saying, the man must be a demigod. It was almost never pointed out that the attacks on Obama were a reverse image of liberals' eight-year denunciation of Bush's (and latterly Sarah Palin's) supposedly dangerous religious opinions. Obama the Antichrist was also the mirror opposite of his most fevered supporters' invocation of him as the One, the Messiah, the long-awaited saviour of the planet.
For some reason not yet adequately explained, all sides instinctively pictured him in religious terms. The day after the election a Russian friend e-mailed me that according to seers in his country Obama's inauguration would be swiftly followed by the end of the world. Only three small villages in Siberia would survive. More ominously, in late November the American press let one of the sacred days in the civic calendar, the 45th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination, go by almost unmentioned--a new taboo whose premise was only too clear.
You might suppose, gentle Canadian reader, that we were a nation on the brink of apocalyptic civil war. Nothing could be further from the truth. (In 2004 a Shakespearean scholar declared that she would never have lunch with me again after I told her I was voting for Bush, but that was in a university.) As they always do, most Americans ignored political rhetoric as best they could and continued to get along perfectly well with friends, neighbours, even family members who held far-out opinions or supported the other candidate. It was only some in the news business who gave the world the impression that, after eight years of Bush, the country was unravelling.
ALL THIS hysteria was about one of the most cautious political animals in recent history. His extreme caution showed itself when he chose as his running mate a familiar old party stalwart who had spent 35 years in the Senate echoing the Democratic line while at the same time reliably representing the banking and credit card industries that dominate his state.
To win corn-growing Iowa, Obama supported ethanol, one of the longtime boondoggles of American politics. (McCain was one of the few national candidates of either party who forthrightly opposed it.) To compete with Hillary Clinton in the Midwest he denounced free trade and NAFTA (while his economic spokesman assured the Canadian ambassador he didn't really mean it). One of his few major campaign mistakes was telling what he thought was a confidential meeting of wealthy supporters in San Francisco that blue-collar voters in states like Pennsylvania foolishly "cling" to guns, religion, and trade protectionism, three issues on which he had recently been trying hard to persuade those same voters that he shared their views.
To please the many Democrats who considered President Bush a unilateralist warmonger he offered to meet the president of Iran without preconditions. That was the soft Obama. To reassure general election voters, however, he declared more than once during the debates that he would not allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons, period, and promised repeatedly that unlike the wimpy Bush he would kill Osama bin Laden deader than a mackerel even if it meant ignoring Pakistani sovereignty. That was the hard Obama. His best-known pledge, of course, the original basis of his candidacy, was to "end" the war in Iraq by removing American combat forces immediately (his early position) or within sixteen months (the later version).
How such a figure views himself in relation to his devotees' expectations, or how far he feels bound by any of his changing emphases before becoming president, remains to be seen.
If you live in a so-called swing state during a presidential election, motorcades will frequently disrupt your travel plans, and television will be crawling with commercials designed to appeal specifically to local sentiment. Your phone will ring every evening at dinnertime as one compaign or the other tries to influence your leanings and, if you seem receptive, make sure you get to the polls. Of the three states where I've spent most of my life, Pennsylvania and Virginia got the full treatment this time, while Maryland, which long ago became reliably Democratic, had only glimpses of candidates when they raced across the state heading north or south. Nobody on either side bothered to campaign there, or in such immovable big states as New York, California, or Texas.
Pennsylvanians were also bombarded with direct-mail advertising, which emanated overwhelmingly from the much more affluent Obama campaign. Attacks on McCain appeared in our mailbox almost every day in late October and early November--a nuisance, but also a source of pride. For once someone was taking us seriously. We began to understand the way residents of Iowa and New Hampshire feel every four years. Like them, we soon became jaded, suspicious alike of the candidates and the process.
Obama ended up carrying Pennsylvania on the strength of its most populous urban areas even though 52 of the state's 67 counties, including Cumberland, went for McCain. As a result of the new president's success in almost every swing state, at least two things will never happen again in our lifetimes. Neither party will ever nominate a candidate who looks a day over 50, and no nominee will ever again accept public financing. By raising and spending over $700 million in private donations, Obama completely demolished the hard-won system of campaign finance reforms whose main congressional champion, ironically, was the hapless John McCain.
A surprising number of affluent voters gave international public relations as their strongest reason for supporting Obama. One friend of mine, a psychologist in Connecticut, wanted him to win so that world opinion (by which she really meant European intellectuals) would stop thinking of us as a nation of cow boys and fundamentalists. Another, an anglophilic professor in Virginia, had a Greek friend who believed the Bush administration had faked the 9/11 attacks and hoped an Obama victory would persuade Greeks and Britons alike that the United States had rejoined the civilized world. It was unclear to me whether the candidate's presumed ideology counted more or his being "black," the simple label that concealed so many fascinating complexities about both Obama and American society.
The cultural cringe many well-travelled Americans exhibit in relation to foreign observers seems odd given this country's unrivalled attractiveness to immigrants from all parts of the world. How long the soothing Obama Effect lasts at home or abroad will be interesting to see. Will it be possible for him to act in ways that foreigners who loved to hate Bush would approve without at the same time offending many of the people who voted for him? Obviously much depends on the decisions he has to make about Iraq, Iran, Guantanamo, and other areas where the needs of American security policy may not coincide with European or Canadian hopes.
The citizens of a country sometimes have a hard time understanding what foreigners see in that country's leaders. My English friends could never understand why Tony Blair was so admired in the United States--the unintelligent cliche about his being "Bush's poodle" always came to their lips. Thirty-odd years ago the popularity of Pierre Trudeau abroad enraged many Canadians. Reagan's enduring status as a hero to eastern Europeans similarly infuriated liberal Americans, while Bush's high standing in sub-Saharan Africa was mostly ignored at home. What the world sees now in Obama is a reflection of its own immoderate wishes. Which of its varied desires will be met, which partly fulfilled, and which disappointed is a question for astrologers; but there may be tears before bedtime.
During and just after the fall campaign Deborah Howell, the ombudsman of the Washington Post, wrote a series of columns taking her paper to task for the blatant pro-Obama favouritism of its election coverage. Although a liberal Democrat and Obama voter herself, she felt that such editorial practices compromised the paper's claim to be a reliable source of political news. Her counterpart at the equally partisan New York Times was less candid. After several times defending his editors against the charge of "liberal bias," he largely abandoned the fight and wrote about other subjects. Worldwide print and electronic adoration of Obama, culminating in the buildup of his inauguration as the Second Coming, carries major risks for an industry whose level of trust is always questionable. If he fails to pan out, the tone of the coverage could shift rapidly, as it often has for other once-popular figures, but in this case the media investment has been so great that the loss of credibility would be massive, comparable to what might follow a sudden announcement that global warming was not real after all.
One non-ideological reason for media adulation is that in contrast to Bush, who paid a heavy price for his inarticulateness, Obama is the greatest master of words of any president since Reagan. So far in his brief career, the resourceful audacity with which he pursues his ambitions has rarely been matched by the courage of convictions. But not all successful presidents are elected as "conviction politicians" like Reagan. Now that he finds himself at the top, Obama might become what his supporters keep hoping, another Franklin D. Roosevelt who transforms both the nation and the world for the better. At worst, as those same supporters sometimes worry, he could be another Jimmy Carter, who appealed to many of the same impulses but was driven from office after a disastrous single term. Or he could turn out like Bill Clinton, a president of legendary political gifts who deployed them mostly for the short-term interests of the man in the mirror.
CHARISMATIC leaders can be dangerous, and we may yet learn things about Obama we wish we had known earlier. But to anyone who started school in segregated buildings a few years before the Brown decision, seeing two black secretaries of state pave the way for a president whose parents came from Kenya and Kansas is an inspiring experience no matter what happens next. Obama's election could well end up being more important than anything he accomplishes in office, soft or hard. For all the exaggerated emotionalism, his inauguration speaks volumes about the country's long-term future.
America can be proud of itself in ways that, for once, most of the world appreciates and shares--no small historical achievement for both country and candidate in what might have been just the normal eight-year alternation of parties. Whether he succeeds, fails, or straddles the middle rank of presidents, no fair-minded person will be able to blame Obama's fate on either race or racism. And for that even the cynical Mencken would be thankful--though he would still have had a good laugh when the governor of Illinois was arrested for trying to sell the anointed one's vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder.
CHRISTOPHER CLAUSEN writes frequently on American culture and society for Queen's Quarterly and other publications. His most recent book is Faded Mosaic: The Emergence of Post-Cultural America.