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Showered with Praise

The media's love affair with the idea of Barack Obama.

Mar 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 26 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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He is, in effect, themselves only better, which explains his attraction for New York Times bloggers, and for their soulmates at Newsweek and Time. "These are people for whom the Obamas are not just a beacon .  .  . but .  .  . a kind of mirror," as Warner writes. "This is the first president I've known who looks, talks, and acts like a peer," as one man told her. "I feel like I understand what he's like and where's he coming from. .  .  . If you stopped the clock in 2004 .  .  . he'd feel roughly like a peer in terms of accomplishments. .  .  . Despite his incredible achievements, he still seems like a lot of people I know."

Believing the right is made up of dorks and bigots, liberals find the idea of Obama a tonic and twofer, allowing them to think well of themselves on two different levels--as the wonderful people who backed and elected our first nonwhite president; and as the wonderful people who set style everywhere, the ultimate last word in cool. Either would do, but the two put together--the messiah and model in one lissome package--was enough to make them go bonkers, and bonkers they went. "As a nation, we're shedding our childlike, rural innocence and becoming more mature, urban, urbane  .  .  .  dare I say it, sophisticated?" Joe Klein enthused, and went on to declare the Obama administration an astonishing triumph before it had started, and well in advance of the fact. So did Jonathan Alter, in spite of the fact that the stock market had only gone down with Obama's accession. "Chin up, everyone. This president is well poised to bring us back from the brink," he declared, just before Obama embarked on his first speech before Congress. How did Alter know this? Well, he just knew. Obama was so "naturally confident," so bold, and yet humble, so brainy (in the same way as Alter), so much the "smart, cool instructor, trusted by the class to explain." So Obama explained things. And then the Dow declined even more.

The high point of Obama as an idea may have come between his election and his inauguration, when imagination roamed free and his potential was limitless, while the reckoning came when he had to stop talking, and act. "There isn't much further he can go as a speechmaker," said the TV critic Tom Shales, no friend to Obama's enemies. " 'It is time for America to lead again,' he said, but hasn't he said that before? How many times can he say 'it's time' before it really is time? The honeymoon might go on, but if it turns out to be a case of too much talk and too little action, the great communal cry of national disappointment will be crushing, and cruel." Wall Street was proving immune to the cult of Obama. There was a whole lot of action, but most of it seemed to be down. "It's heading toward 6,000," said MSNBC's Chris Matthews of the Dow, his leg tingle quite vanished. "People are really getting angry. I'm getting angry. .  .  . They are really angry and they're going to get mad at him if we don't get this market turned around." By March 3, Christopher Buckley and David Brooks, the leading Obamacons of 2008, were both peeling off, holding their heads, and moaning of deficits. Even Maureen Dowd did a 180, referring to her man's "disturbing spells of passivity." The intoxication was wearing off fast.

"Barack Obama had a gift and he knew it," ran the start of a long Newsweek piece about the election. "He had a way of making very smart, very accomplished people feel virtuous" simply by helping him out. "Obama's gift correlates with the inner needs of his audience," noted the blogger Scott Johnson. And so it did. That audience voted for him because he made them feel better, because he made them feel brave, noble, and tolerant; because he made them feel better than Bush and some others; because he made them feel part of a select clique of people, because he made them feel clever, and cool. They know they and Obama are smarter than Bush is because .  .  . well, they know it. In 2004, Howell Raines was sure that John Kerry was smarter than Bush was, and the records proved otherwise. What if facts prove otherwise now?

For the past six years, if not more, the implication of everything written in the Times, Time, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker was that if only they had one of their own in the White House, he could really ace this whole president business, which only seemed hard because Bush was so clueless, so Texan, so lacking in intellect (at least as defined by their editors' standards). But Obama's first weeks have not been promising. The Daily Telegraph (U.K.) writes that Obama is "overwhelmed" by his office, and "surprise[d] at the sheer volume of business that crosses his desk." This has not gone unnoticed. "In ways both large and small, what's left of the American establishment is taking his measure and, with surprising swiftness, they are finding him lacking," as Howard Fineman reports. What if he turns out to be no more able than Bush was to figure out how to calm down the markets, how to close Gitmo without causing more problems, what to do about Russia and Pakistan, and how to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon without risk of starting a war? How sophisticated will Klein feel if the Dow hits 5000? Where will Warner and pen pals go with their fantasies? The shower they wanted to take with Obama may be a cold dousing quite soon.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.