How Will the Infatuation End?

The universal power of Obama’s appeal will ultimately dash the hope for American renewal that his election seems to promise

Opinion | Mason Chamie | December 2008 / January 2009

We’ve all suffered from infatuation, pinning our private hopes, desires and secret ambitions onto some unsuspecting soul.  And we’re all familiar with the subsequent disappointment when the unwitting object stubbornly refuses to oblige the image we’ve concocted in our heads.

By any measure, President-elect Barack Hussein Obama is a figure of collective political infatuation.  Staggering approval ratings aside, a brief sweep of the Austrian or German press since Nov. 5 alone confirms this unlikely love affair:

"The Hope of the World" [News]; "The Dream Comes True" [Die Zeit]; "Are we all Americans now?" [Die Presse]; "The New Kennedy" [Just about everyone] … and the hyperbole goes on.  Yet, can this infatuation survive the inevitable moment President Obama actually pulls the levers of American power?  Can we really hope for a suspension of the meat-and-gristle ideological clashes that have torn at American democracy for the past forty years? No, we can’t.

Let’s risk going one step further: it is precisely the universal power of Obama’s appeal – and the vibrant vindication of American democracy at the heart of his electoral success – that will ultimately dissolve this world-wide infatuation, not to mention dashing hope for the American "renewal" his election seems to promise.

President Obama’s profoundly symbolic victory might, paradoxically, cause an even greater amount of "Anti-Americanism."

First, to be clear, I’m not trying to kill the music at the Obama love-in and I’m certainly not suggesting that "Obamamania" is some passing high school crush gone global.  Astute observers on the left and right concede that Obama’s win is a fascinating, complex, unprecedented, and deeply historic phenomenon.

But what does this mean? For starters, his election has proven that America has not only "transcended race" but, in doing so, has truly become what former Senator and Basketball star Bill Bradley called a "Creedal Society" – a people whose identity is not primarily bound up in the tangle of ethnicity and race but rather in the progressive and rationally impressionable realm of ideas and ideals. Obama won the election on the merit of his ideas, his judgment, his talents, and his character; namely, on the most visible form of this creed-based society, the much ridiculed but resilient "American Dream."

In Europe, the "American Dream" is the butt of sarcastic jokes, especially given the stark socioeconomic inequalities in America and our tendency toward flag waving patriotism. But gleeful America-bashing at the cocktail party ought not blind us to the "Dream’s" epic appeal: the simple but stirring notion that anyone, from anywhere, regardless of their race, religion, gender or class is free to achieve whatever they set their minds and hearts on.  Even die-hard critics love Remy the Rat in Ratatouille – who is, after all, nothing but the most recent, and most furry, manifestation of the "Dream."

Now, make what you wish of these ideals but the simple fact is: most Americans truly and deeply believe in them and are even willing to die for that old yarn about "Das Land der Unbegrentzen Moglichkeiten."  It is, in part, this cherished belief in the "American Dream" that gave Barack Obama a fighting chance in his historic bid for the White House.

But it was also Obama’s remarkably astute political radar and broad intelligence, set to the backdrop of Republican misrule, that brought victory. Obama’s hopeful pragmatism stood out against the Bush Administration’s signature qualities – unusually secretive, decidedly partisan, righteously ideological, and exasperatingly disinterested in dialogue or compromise, either domestic or international. Thanks to Dubya’s instinctive "with-us-or-against" modus operandi, Obama’s cautious deliberation and reasonable optimism, cast in the warm glow of reconciliation and unity, seemed to contrast like a genuine revelation. Insert the impeccable timing of the September financial meltdown, a stunningly well-organized and almost gaffe-free campaign, a visceral appeal to the young, a steady winning over of women, moderates, and independents and, finally, Bush’s historic disapproval ratings with which he successfully tarred and feathered his otherwise worthy Republican opponent, John McCain.

So, why the opening paradox?

Well, if we take a longer historical perspective, we realize that the "American Dream" is itself only a jazzy, contemporary version of a nearly four century old philosophical revolution that we have come to call "the Enlightenment," a movement that not only gave birth to "individualism" (a key ingredient of the American DNA) but also spawned our distinctly modern conceptions of freedom, equality and tolerance.  Most importantly, all of these ideals were crafted on explicitly universal terms.  The revered "Founding" documents – the Constitution (racist concession notwithstanding) and Declaration of Independence – are riveted to Enlightenment conceptions of mankind cast in vigorously universalist ideas that claim to transcend time, place, and culture.  Hate him or hate him, George W. Bush’s noble claim that "freedom is not an American ideal but a human one" is cut from this cloth.

It is thus no accident that America conceives itself as the universal nation par excellence.  Seen from the heights of this legacy, Barack Obama’s historic election only serves to highlight and reconfirm the strength of these aspirations.

This brings us back to our paradox: It is the almost unspoken adherence to universal values and the intuitive inclination to think in categories of shared human experience that forms the basis of the "American Dream" and the "exceptionalism" at its core. That’s the key to understanding how Americans perceive themselves – Barack Obama being no exception.  Read his speeches and analyze his ideas: they all bear the hallmarks of the American belief in its exceptional status as a voice for humankind. True, this odd "exceptionalism" is a source of bemused eye-rolling outside the United States, but editorial pages all across Europe still ask:

"Where else could a black man or an ethnic or racial minority possibly be elected as President of an advanced industrial democracy?" (Neither Gordon Brown’s Scottish roots nor the President of Japan’s Catholic faith cut the mustard.)

Obama not only owes his success to American faith in "universalism" but, like every American President before him, genuinely believes in its simple power and basic truth.  Today, American "exceptionalism" is expressed in a demand for human rights, for open markets, and for the spread of democracy. In fact, the heated debate about globalization and the attendant commercialization of societies are to most people synonymous with "Americanization" – the source of even more fervent resistance.

With Obama as President, this vision, and all its associated problems, won’t change. America’s Enlightenment roots continue to make it hostile to all cultural traditions that don’t at least tend towards the universal ideals of democracy (equality and consent), free markets (liberty and property rights), and humanitarian ideals (individualism and basic moral standards).  Will Obama abandon attempts to nudge Beijing toward democracy? Will he quietly acquiesce before South America’s socialist drift? Will he ignore Russian muscle over former satellites while trying to hold Europe energy hostage? Should Obama’s desire to end our "dumb war" in Iraq be read as disinterest in democratic reform in the region? Hardly.

Obama will reanimate the transatlantic alliance itself on the basis of a profound philosophical and political stake in the shared and fragile future of democracy, political liberty, free market growth, and human rights.  The extent to which Europe is willing to don the mantle of these universal ideals determines the extent of future Anti-Americanism.

But, either way, President Obama can’t stop that wave. His very political success and American identity itself is based on the universalism that fuels Anti-Americanism. Thus, infatuation with Barack Obama will be short lived unless these universal ideals are suddenly welcome, or – more unlikely – unless Obama abandons this heritage, the very source of his electoral success.

Can we expect either?  No, we can’t.  Who will first serve the divorce papers when the honeymoon is over?

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