Commentary Magazine


Topic: Barbara Walters

Early Media Warnings About Deifying Obama

Yesterday I wrote about an interview in which ABC’s Barbara Walters, in speaking about Barack Obama, said “we” thought he would be “the next messiah.” I drew attention to some other comments by journalists and historians that illustrated just how much deification of Obama was going on a few years ago.

To their credit, some journalists called attention to this phenomenon at the time. Take CNN’s Jake Tapper, one of the best journalists in America. While at ABC News in 2008, Tapper posted a piece, “And Obama Wept,” in which he cited writers like Kathleen Geier, an Obama supporter who, in describing various encounters with Obama advocates, wrote this:

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Yesterday I wrote about an interview in which ABC’s Barbara Walters, in speaking about Barack Obama, said “we” thought he would be “the next messiah.” I drew attention to some other comments by journalists and historians that illustrated just how much deification of Obama was going on a few years ago.

To their credit, some journalists called attention to this phenomenon at the time. Take CNN’s Jake Tapper, one of the best journalists in America. While at ABC News in 2008, Tapper posted a piece, “And Obama Wept,” in which he cited writers like Kathleen Geier, an Obama supporter who, in describing various encounters with Obama advocates, wrote this:

Excuse me, but this sounds more like a cult than a political campaign. The language used here is the language of evangelical Christianity – the Obama volunteers speak of ‘coming to Obama’ in the same way born-again Christians talk about ‘coming to Jesus.’…So I say, we should all get a grip, stop all this unseemly mooning over Barack, see him and the political landscape he is a part of in a cooler, clearer, and more realistic light, and get to work.

Others, like Time magazine’s Joe Klein, offered similar warnings about the “mass  messianism” we were witnessing. Tapper wrote, “I’m not saying there shouldn’t be enthusiasm in politics. I’m merely touching on the fact that some Obama supporters’ exuberance seems to be getting a little out of hand.”

Indeed it was.

It’s a credit to journalists like Tapper and writers like Geier and Klein who warned about the cult-like effect Mr. Obama was having on people then rather than to those who, having bought into it five years ago, are now left scrambling to explain why Obama turned out to be merely mortal.

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“We Thought That [Obama] Was Going to Be the Next Messiah”

In an interview Barbara Walters did with CNN’s Piers Morgan, this exchange took place:

MORGAN: You have interviewed every president of my lifetime. Why is Obama facing so much opposition now? Why is he struggling so much to really fulfill the great flame of ambition and excitement that he was elected on originally in 2009?

 

WALTERS: Well, you’ve touched on it to a degree. He made so many promises. We thought that he was going to be – I shouldn’t say this at Christmastime, but – the next messiah. And the whole ObamaCare, or whatever you want to call it, the Affordable Health Act, it just hasn’t worked for him, and he’s stumbled around on it, and people feel very disappointed because they expected more.

Ms. Walters is right to say it might not be quite appropriate to say around Christmastime that Mr. Obama had been widely thought to be “the next messiah,” though I’d recommend that be expanded to include anytime, not just Christmastime.

What’s revealing, of course, is that Ms. Walters ever thought that is what Obama would be. And note the use of the pronoun “we”–as if we, all of us, had messianic expectations for Mr. Obama. Actually, many of us did not, though I think it’s fair to say some of Ms. Walters’ colleagues in the media and other members of the political class did.

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In an interview Barbara Walters did with CNN’s Piers Morgan, this exchange took place:

MORGAN: You have interviewed every president of my lifetime. Why is Obama facing so much opposition now? Why is he struggling so much to really fulfill the great flame of ambition and excitement that he was elected on originally in 2009?

 

WALTERS: Well, you’ve touched on it to a degree. He made so many promises. We thought that he was going to be – I shouldn’t say this at Christmastime, but – the next messiah. And the whole ObamaCare, or whatever you want to call it, the Affordable Health Act, it just hasn’t worked for him, and he’s stumbled around on it, and people feel very disappointed because they expected more.

Ms. Walters is right to say it might not be quite appropriate to say around Christmastime that Mr. Obama had been widely thought to be “the next messiah,” though I’d recommend that be expanded to include anytime, not just Christmastime.

What’s revealing, of course, is that Ms. Walters ever thought that is what Obama would be. And note the use of the pronoun “we”–as if we, all of us, had messianic expectations for Mr. Obama. Actually, many of us did not, though I think it’s fair to say some of Ms. Walters’ colleagues in the media and other members of the political class did.

To appreciate the hagiography once surrounding Mr. Obama, it’s worth going beyond the thrill he sent up the leg of Chris Matthews. Consider as well that the historian Garry Wills favorably compared Obama’s 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech, on the issue of race and his relationship with Jeremiah Wright, to Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 Cooper Union speech. In the Nation magazine Tom Hayden, Barbara Ehrenrich, Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Danny Glover wrote that Obama’s address on race “was as great a speech as ever given by a presidential candidate, revealing a philosophical depth, personal authenticity, and political intelligence that should convince any but the hardest of ideologues that he carries unmatched leadership potentials for overcoming the divide-and-conquer tactics that have sundered Americans since the first slaves arrived here in chains.”

Immediately after his election, on the November 7, 2008 broadcast of PBS’s Charlie Rose, the historian Alan Brinkley said, “I don’t think we’ve had a president since Lincoln who has the oratorical skills that Obama has. Obama has that quality that Lincoln had.” David Remnick of the New Yorker also compared Obama’s rhetorical skills to Lincoln. (It got to the point that Remnick had to say, “We’ll climb out of the tank soon.”) Nor should we forget when in 2009 presidential historian Michael Beschloss said of Obama: “He’s probably the smartest guy ever to become President.”

Speaking as one of those Americans who didn’t invest god-like power in Mr. Obama or even once confuse him with Lincoln–and who, I will confess, didn’t even expect him to slow the rise of the oceans and heal our planet–the fact that Obama has failed isn’t all that surprising. What is, though, is just how comprehensive his failures have been. They have come early in his term and later, on economics and in foreign policy, in the conduct of war and in the art of diplomacy; in reducing poverty and in raising standards of living. He has failed when it comes to his promises of transparency, bipartisanship, and depolarization, basic competence and truth telling. In reviewing the five years of his presidency, what stands out is that he has striking few real successes to his name. His greatest legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is politically toxic and a policy disaster.

Some of us weren’t expecting Mr. Obama to be the next messiah. We would have settled if he had simply been mediocre. But it turns out he’s fallen far short even of that. For the sake of the nation, he should have remained a community organizer in Chicago.

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