02 July 2014

Obama and the cult of personality in American politics

The verdict of a Quinnipiac poll on President Obama's performance during his six years in office can't simply be dismissed as the result of Republican propaganda -- or racism -- or blamed on Republican obstructionism. By now it seems pretty nearly established as an objective fact that Barack Obama has been a sub-par President. Too many events around the world seem to have caught him flat-footed, and he has been unable, despite his own election victories, to win the larger policy or propaganda battles with a Republican party that is at least as unpopular as he is. Is Obama really the worst President since the end of World War II? For the moment he's the least popular from the perspective of 2014. This judgment isn't universal, of course. There are gender and, perhaps more importantly, generation gaps in perception of the man. He is most popular with the young, even as many young people grade him a failure on several policy fronts. Some will blame Obama's standing with young adults on "liberal media" brainwashing and bad education in the public schools, but the numbers may reflect a feeling among young people, in spite of Obama's own record, that he's the right kind of President for our time. Recent polls have shown new lows of esteem for all branches of government, including the Supreme Court. Is everyone in government more stupid than ever, or is the U.S. simply in a decline that thwarts anyone's efforts at leadership? Unfortunately, we'll probably have to endure another Republican presidency before most people will draw conclusions. For now, many can still convince themselves that a President with a more understanding attitude toward business could turn the country around, even though a reputedly business-friendly President presided over the 2008 recession.

That the Republicans will most likely win the Senate this year, and the White House in 2016, only illustrates the impasse we're stuck at. The American people have little confidence in either major party, but they still have less confidence in anyone else. If it's a point against Obama that he was relatively inexperienced in government before winning the Presidency, how willing would anyone be to take a chance on someone who, by virtue of being independent, will not have held any political office? Conservatives might claim that successful businessmen have the skill set necessary, but will anyone else agree? Fewer still would agree that a pure academic is qualified to run the country. However, if things stay as they are, more Americans may decide that the primary qualification for a President, despite the different reservations of conservatives and liberals, is that he be the sort of strong man that neither Obama nor George W. Bush has been, though both have been accused by their enemies of aspiring to that role.

Will a time come when the Republican or Democratic party is repudiated as decisively by the American people as Communist parties were by Eastern Europe in 1989? Communist parties are accused of building cults of personality around leaders but something similar goes on in the U.S. In our case, the faults of an administration are blamed on the people in charge, not on their party, so that Obama's rotten poll numbers reflect on him personally rather than on the Democratic party, even though his unpopularity may hurt Democrats generally this fall. The damage is always temporary, however, and in time the Democrats will present new candidates as "better people" than Obama, just as Republicans in 2016 will offer "better people" than George W. Bush. The cult of personality in American politics sustains the illusion that government failures are personal failures, not systemic ones. Since there will always be new people to run for office as Democrats or Republicans, the parties can survive any personal failure. Whether the country will survive many more is another question entirely, but if our survival depends on people overcoming bipolarchy I wouldn't get my hopes up.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The sad fact is, the repugnicans own as much responsibility for the failures of Obama's presidency as Obama himself.