Reality check on the way for the cult of Obama


OPINION:Yes, yes, he’s wonderful – but remember Tony Blair and the realities of political office, writes Donald Clarke

‘HOW LONG ago that blissful early morning seems,” the news report reads. “When Barack Obama accompanied his smiling family onto the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park the whole world seemed to wish him well. Now, mired in scandal and chaos, the beleaguered president could be forgiven for viewing that night as a happy dream.”

We might, of course, never see these words written in earnest. It’s just possible that Barack Obama – walking personification of the light at the end of Bush Tunnel – could live up to the absurdly heightened expectations that have gathered around him.

It is, however, worth remembering the flag-waving hordes that gathered to greet Tony Blair as he first arrived in Downing Street. When the footage was replayed in subsequent years to punctuate a report on some misguided invasion or ministerial infelicity, one was struck by the smug hubris of the new prime minister.

But the childlike naivety of Tony’s shrieking supporters was even more arresting. What were they thinking? The man’s a politician, for heaven’s sake. “You know the ethics those guys have,” Woody Allen’s character says in Annie Hall. “It’s like a notch underneath child molester.”

I can sense knuckles whitening with fury across the nation. There are, currently, two public figures whose sanctity is not to be questioned in the mainstream media. One is Barack Obama; the other is Leonard Cohen.

There are, it seems to me, three reasons for the astonishing solidity of the Obama cult.

Firstly, the Bush administration was so rapacious, so poisonously corrupt, so uninterested in reaching beyond its core constituency, so suspicious of nuance and so shamelessly insular that right-thinking folk would have supported a potato on a stick if it promised even the slightest change of direction. Remember how, over the last eight years, certain Irish dissenters opposed so many government policies – the Lisbon Treaty, that Hill of Tara business – by distributing posters featuring George Bush waving a machine gun? Is this what you want? George Bush with a machine gun? No? Then vote against Lisbon and support Potato on a Stick.

The second reason is connected with an understandable desire to acknowledge the American electorate’s willingness to vote for an African-American candidate. Despite the result, significant portions of the United States’ population (and Ireland’s and everywhere else’s) still harbour concerns about being governed by someone who looks a bit different to themselves. The prospect of making that lot downhearted is cause enough to hope for a successful Obama presidency.

Thirdly, there is – yes, yes, I’m not going to deny it – the indisputable reality of Obama’s personal charm, steady temperament, quick sense of humour and soaring articulacy. George Bush has provided pundits with plenty of grim comedy over the years, but, on balance, it is preferable to have somebody in the White House who can tie his own shoelaces and go to the potty unaided. Obama might be, in John Pilger’s words, “more symptom [of] than solution” to the George Bush calamity; he will, however, never be mistaken for a mere potato on a stick. But, here’s the thing. Obama’s most celebrated virtues are all personal and presentational, not political.

Thanks to his surprisingly well-written memoirs, we know an unprecedented amount about his inspirations and discontents: he once liked a spot of “blow”; he enjoys watching The Godfather; he’d liked to have known his dad better. Yet we are still not at all sure what position he occupies on the political spectrum. To this point, he has managed to be most things to most men. In the art galleries and rehearsal spaces of Brooklyn, he is celebrated as a genuine radical. Christopher Hitchens, the war on terror’s biggest fan, was able to disregard the candidate’s early enthusiasm for a “stupid rock’n’roll church” and offer a reasonably enthusiastic endorsement. Robert Gates, Bush’s defence secretary, thought him sufficiently moderate to accept an offer to stay in his job. The swivel-eyed, vampire fringe of the Republican Party does believe that Obama is tattooed with the number of the beast, but, by treating him as, simultaneously, an atheistic socialist and an Islamicist mole, the bloodsuckers only confirm his status as the Rorschach inkblot of contemporary politics. When people describe what they see, they say more about themselves than they do about Obama.

All that ended yesterday. You can run as an inkblot, but you must govern as a human being. Just ask Tony Blair.