Believe It or Not, He's Walking on Air

If you go into a chain bookstore these days, you're likely to see an entire wall devoted to books about Barack Obama. Some are collections of photographs from the campaign, some are aimed at kids (Meet President Obama!), some are meant to be a little more thoughtful (answering the question, "What does Obama mean?"), and a few are warnings about the road to disaster he's leading us down. You can see it online as well; search Amazon.com for "Obama" in the books section, and you receive 4,388 results. Among the seven books in the "Cooking, Food and Wine" section are The Obama Menu, and books like The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese, which apparently mentions him somewhere in its pages.

Even excluding the cheese references, that's an impressive output, particularly considering that the man has been president for all of six weeks.

Let me make a prediction: Before this presidency is over, there will be more tomes written about it than any in decades. Obama hasn't yet inspired the kind of raw, burning hatred that so many felt about Bill Clinton, at least not in the same volume (there were even a few books written on Clinton's malevolent perfidy that appeared after he left office, as though his enemies were experiencing phantom limb syndrome, or had missed their manuscript deadline). That, no doubt, will come. But what he has inspired is a kind of admiration that most of today's progressives, particularly those under the age of 50, have never experienced in their lifetime.

Perhaps they're still in the "honeymoon phase," and after a few big policy failures, they'll come down to earth. But when it comes to venerating their leader, progressives today are starting to sound like … conservatives.

It's been true for a long time that those on the right thrive when they have a hero to worship and a villain to hate. The prototype of the former, of course, is Ronald Reagan. To hear some tell it, Reagan lived a life without sin and left a legacy of words and deeds that should be studied closely if one is to understand the meaning of our existence. According to the Census Bureau, in 2007, "Reagan" was the 156th most popular name in America for girls -- no "Emma" or "Madison," perhaps, but still going strong.

So what was it about Reagan? It was only partly about performance -- while he succeeded in achieving many conservative goals, he also raised taxes, ballooned the federal budget, and negotiated with the dreaded Soviets. But what really counted was that Reagan understood better than almost anyone (and better than any contemporary Republican) that politics is about identity. He told people: Support me, and you will be who I am. You will be strong and unafraid, proud and patriotic. You will be honorable and true, hardworking and noble, not like those dirty hippies and irresponsible young people and ungrateful minorities, all saying gimme gimme gimme while you make this great land run. You will be America. America as it was, America as it's supposed to be.

That message was powerful enough not just to win two presidential elections but to bond his ideological compatriots to him for all eternity. And for a time it seemed that George Bush might attain the same status. In the wake of September 11, some on the right began to talk about Bush in a similar way, as the embodiment of everything they wanted to be. He was strong in the face of danger, he had "moral clarity," he was possessed of common sense. And liberals hated him, perhaps the most valuable credential of all. Bush aides and conservative media figures penned one hagiography after another, with titles like The Right Man and Rebel in Chief. Bill Sammon, who went from The Washington Times to Fox News, wrote an astonishing four books on the topic of Bush's super-awesomeness.

But then it all came crashing down. Bush not only failed at his job, he won the disgust of Americans across the political spectrum. In the end, with approval ratings lower than any president in history, he looked like nothing so much as a loser. And if there's one thing conservatives cannot abide, it's a loser. So today, elite conservatives are busily pretending that they never liked the guy in the first place. Newt Gingrich speaks of "Bush-Obama" spending, and when they want to praise something he did, they can barely speak his name. On a recent "Meet the Press" appearance, GOP Congressman Mike Pence averred that "John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and after the towers fell in 2001 proved" that tax cuts work, as though associating even the most bedrock conservative belief with the last Republican president was enough to give it a loathsome stench. If there's a conservative couple out there who named their baby son "Bush" back in 2002, you can bet they're calling that kid by his middle name.

But progressives haven't needed to worry about that. We're used to having mixed feelings about Democratic presidents and candidates right from the beginning. We make a rational assessment of their strengths and weaknesses, and admire them when they deserve it. But worship? No thanks. At the 2004 "Take Back America" conference, Jim Hightower said, to much applause from the crowd, "There are those who say that John Kerry is not liberal enough. I don't care if John Kerry is a sack of cement, we're going to carry him to victory!" Not the stuff of which hero-worship is made, but a common sentiment in those days. "Clinton," by the way, came in a sad 755th among the most popular boy names in 2007.

Of course, progressives had plenty of ambivalence about the 42nd president, even before the Lewinsky scandal and its attendant unpleasantness cast a grey pall over all his considerable accomplishments. But there's precious little ambivalence about Obama so far -- to the delight of his supporters, he has put forward a transformative agenda, and meets Republicans without fear. It's hard to imagine Obama pleading for his own relevance, as Clinton did after the 1994 election.

It's far too early to tell whether future progressives will ask themselves "What would Obama do?" as today's conservatives ask themselves, "What would Reagan do?" What we do know is that Obama has already done some of what Reagan did. Like Reagan, Obama understands the intersection of politics and identity and how his supporters can see themselves in him. That's what happened during the campaign, when being an Obama supporter became an emblem of identity. It meant you embraced a multicultural America, you were forward-looking, you weren't afraid of change, and you were willing to proclaim your progressivism after years of keeping quiet about what you believe.

Glancing over the Obama books already on the shelf -- from Obama in Prophecy (which details "the striking parallels between the careers of Joseph the Hebrew of ancient Egypt and Barack Obama of this present time") to The Greatest Gift I Could Offer: Quotations from Barack Obama on Parenting and Family -- one begins to feel that the adulation is getting a bit out of hand. It certainly isn't the kind of thing the left usually goes in for. And all the hope with which he has been invested brings the danger of a dramatic fall and widespread disillusionment. But for now, his supporters are feeling something they haven't felt in a long time.

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