On the face of it, it’s the sort of thing that makes you wonder about the intelligence of the American people. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports, thousands of Americans think President Obama has initiated a program to help them pay their bills and have used bogus routing numbers in vain attempts to make mortgage payments or to resolve overdue utility bills. Call it an urban legend or a myth, but no matter what label you slap on it is a sad commentary on our times that so many would fall for an obvious scam, especially because those spreading the rumor are telling their dupes to use their Social Security numbers to access the supposed presidential bounty. Clearly, some criminals are making a profit from that data and rather than receiving a gift from the White House, those who fall for this story may be subject to identify theft.
Why is the scam working? The easiest answer is the one supplied by P.T. Barnum in his famous quote: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” The famed entrepreneur would get no argument from me about that.
But the willingness to believe that Barack Obama was spreading wealth like some fairy tale king speaks to something deeper in the psyche of our political culture, or at least the subset of it that bought into the “hope and change” mantra that elevated him to the White House in 2008. This is, after all, the president who promised to personally turn back the rising oceans when he accepted the nomination of his party four years ago. The messianic expectations he sought to inspire in his supporters were bound to lead to disappointment. That is what has happened as the country sinks deeper into economic distress for which he doesn’t even pretend to have an answer as he seeks another term. But deep in the hearts of some of those who bought into the magical politics he embodied is the wish that the president will save them from the consequences of his failed policies and make it all right.
Faith in the scam may also be the inevitable result of the class warfare themes that is the heart of the president’s campaign. Though the president isn’t promising to pay their bills, his baiting of Mitt Romney and harping on taxing the rich — a premise that has nothing to do with cutting the deficit and which will discourage the investment that is vital to the hope of a recovery — does give his re-election effort a faux Robin Hood feel that has reinforced the willingness of some poor souls to think he will bail them out of their personal difficulties.
President Obama isn’t directly to blame for the success of this scam. The criminals who cooked it up and the fools who believe it are responsible for their actions, not him. But the president’s own scams — the godlike claims made for his leadership skills and the class warfare arguments that cynically feed resentment while doing nothing to create the wealth our economy needs — are bad enough. But it is no accident that the myth of an “Obama program” to help the needy has attached itself to him. It is a tribute to the mythical status he has attained in the American imagination as well as to the success of the mendacious political rhetoric he has embraced.