Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Delusion of the Masses?

Last Wednesday, Robert Samuelson, who writes a column for The Washington Post, published a piece titled, "The Obama Delusion," in which he reached the following conclusion: "He seems to have hypnotized much of the media and the public with his eloquence and the symbolism of his life story. The result is a mass delusion that Obama is forthrightly engaging the nation's problems when, so far, he isn't." On the previous day, in The New York Times, David Brooks wrote that he had encountered something he labeled OCS, short for "Obama Comedown Syndrome." Those who suffered from this affliction, he wrote, "began to wonder if His stuff actually made sense. For example, his Hopeness tells rallies that we are the change we have been waiting for, but if we are the change we have been waiting for, then why have we been waiting since we've been here all along?"

The tone of both pieces reminded me of what Walter Lippmann wrote of Franklin Roosevelt six months before Roosevelt was declared his party's standard bearer in 1932: "He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President."

And, if one is looking for reasons to explain Obama's rise, it seems to me that what happened in 1932 is instructive. George W. Bush likes to think of himself as another Harry Truman -- a common man of strong convictions who was reviled when he left office, but who history has vindicated. However, Mr. Bush may be more like Herbert Hoover than Harry Truman. Hoover was a dedicated public servant, whose solutions to the economic crisis of his time were classic economic orthodoxy. He never understood that what he faced required a new set of solutions -- what Roosevelt called "The New Deal."

In reaction to Hoover's inability to perceive how much the world had changed, the public rose in revolt and put a man in office who some people referred to as "a feather duster," and who spent a good deal of his time in a wheelchair.

But Roosevelt -- like Obama -- was a quick study, who attracted a brain trust of superb advisers and who thought outside the box. The results were remarkable: Roosevelt abandoned the textbooks and experimented: the benchmark for success was, "Does it work?" Not everything worked; and when that happened, Roosevelt did not make the mistake of confusing policy with dogma. He simply tried something else.

If anything, Mr. Bush has been the opposite of Roosevelt. His mantra has been, "stay the course." The members of the Bush administration are right when they proclaim that the world changed after September 11th. Unfortunately, they have not had Roosevelt's flexibility of mind. And those who Bush has chosen as his Brain Trust have suffered from what the American historian Barbara Tuchman called "woodenheadedness." (See my post of April 9, 2007) The cure for woodenheadness, wrote Tuchman, is moral courage. Unfortunately, history is replete with examples of moral courage being equated with steadfastness. Often, she declared, the true measure of moral courage was the courage to change course. The man in the wheelchair had learned something about moral courage long before he became president.

What Obama is advocating is a change of course. Like Roosevelt, he is saying that the change will only be effective if it comes from the bottom up. And, like Roosevelt, the forces of fear are aligned against him. But he understands that -- in these extraordinary times -- our most potent enemy is "fear itself."

Sometimes the people have an instinctive knowledge that the man who can meet the challenges of their time is in their midst. My guess is that Obama will be elected President. If I'm right, the Walter Lippmanns of our own day will either be proven right or history will force them -- like Lippmann -- to reassess the man.

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