Barack Obama has now been center stage for two years—one as a presidential candidate (and president elect) and one as president. Americans have begun to take their measure of the man, judging him to have been a remarkable success in his first role and struggling in his second. Obama recently awarded himself the grade of “a good, solid B plus” for his performance in office, but the public is not as lenient. The gap in the assessment between Obama the candidate and Obama the president is enormous. Having entered office with a public approval of 70 percent, he has fallen today below 50 percent, the steepest such decline at this point of any first-term president in the postwar period. Obama also has the lowest approval rating at the end of a president’s first year.
A drop in some degree in public approval is not unusual and might even be regarded as natural. Campaigns feed on dreams, governing confronts realities. But Obama’s decline appears to hold greater significance than for past presidents, as it reflects a qualitative change in perception of his image. This shift became clear during his acceptance last month of the Nobel Peace Prize, an award that was proposed just as he took office and that reflected the heady expectations of the campaign. In Oslo, Obama was a much-diminished figure, compelled by the public’s judgment of his record to concede that “my accomplishments are slight.” The actor Will Smith, invited to perform at a gala honoring the president, was one of many forced to respond to the awkward question of whether Obama merited his award. His answer, obviously in the affirmative, harked back to the spirit of the campaign: “Barack Obama as an idea marks an evolutionary flash point for humanity.”
Smith’s comment holds the key to explaining the gap between the two Obamas. The 2008 campaign was an event that unfolded on an entirely different plane from ordinary politics. It signaled the emergence on a worldwide scale of the “Religion of Humanity,” for which Obama became the symbol. What Americans have discovered is that being the representative of this transpolitical movement does not fit easily, if it fits at all, with serving as president of the United States.
There is, to be sure, a conventional explanation for the Obama gap that focuses entirely on American politics. The storyline is by now familiar. In an epic journey, Obama came from nowhere, and against all odds, to capture the presidency. His campaign, which was so brilliant in building enthusiasm and attracting support, did little to provide Americans with a clear idea of where he planned to take the country. The result has been a disconnect between Obama as candidate and as president.
This explanation clearly has merit. The Obama campaign was not programmatic—it had no slogan like Clinton’s “New Democrat” in 1992 or George W. Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism” in 2000—but thematic. Obama’s appeal was organized around two general notions: promoting “change” and fostering a new tone of politics (reform, transparency, and especially postpartisanship). “Change” accommodated many different expectations. For this reason, as late as the time that Obama took office, it was unclear whether it meant pragmatic and incremental adjustment or fundamental transformation. The promise of a new style of politics, a ploy that dates all the way back to the “outsider” campaigns of Ross Perot, was one that Obama quickly tossed aside. Indeed, on the core issue that once defined reform politics—campaign finance regulation—he did not even bother to wait for the election, but exempted himself before the final campaign began.
Yet even if all this is true, it cannot fully account for the decline in Obama’s approval ratings. For one thing, it has never been considered a requirement of American politics to wage programmatic campaigns. Candidates like Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 have not only run and won with thematic campaigns, but also gone on to succeed quite well as presidents. For another, when all is said and done Americans have shown that they can be surprisingly forgiving about “process” and “tonal” transgressions. The discovery that Barack Obama is a partisan who cuts deals behind the scenes with big interests may be dismaying, but it is no more shocking than learning that there was gambling going on in Rick’s Café Americain.
There is therefore a need for an explanation that goes beyond the conventional one. When the history of this period is written, the 2008 campaign will almost certainly be seen as a watershed event in cultural history, above and beyond any connection it had to American politics, when a worldwide movement congealed to display its enthusiasm for Barack Obama. This perspective will also require a reassessment of the place of Obama. To be sure, the campaign will continue in one respect to be regarded as being all about Obama. This has been Obama’s perception, and understandably so. Only the most rare of persons, after being the object for over a year of such unrelenting adulation, could have resisted the temptation to think that the world revolved around him. Barack Obama is clearly not that person. His speeches and remarks are filled with references to himself in a ratio that surpasses anything yet seen in the history of the American presidency. But in another respect, the 2008 campaign was about something much larger than Barack Obama. The character of the event will not be grasped until the focus begins to shift from Barack Obama to the yearning for Barack Obama. It is in the thoughts and actions of those who adored him that the most interesting and important dimension of the campaign took place.
The rise of the Religion of Humanity is what best describes this event. This strange term designates an actual sect, now defunct, that enjoyed a considerable following and prestige in intellectual circles in the 19th century. John Stuart Mill was a prominent convert, pronouncing the “culte de l’humanité [to be] capable of fully supplying the place for a religion, or rather (to say the truth) of being a religion.” In America, where the religion wore the respectable label of the “Church of Humanity,” the acolytes included the well-known journalist David Croly and his son Herbert, the founder and longtime editor of the New Republic. If it were not for the Religion of Humanity, Americans today might not have the pleasure of reading Jonathan Chait on “The Rise of Republican Nihilism” or E.J. Dionne “In Praise of Harry Reid.”
Mill and Croly were both intellectual disciples of the French social philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857). Though rarely studied in America today, Comte bequeathed an enormous legacy. He was the first to simplify and popularize the idea of a progressive movement of history, which he described as proceeding through three great epochs: the age of theological thinking, the age of metaphysical thinking, and the age of scientific or “Positivistic” thinking. (“Positivism,” referring to the scientific mindset and approach, was one of Comte’s many linguistic inventions.) The inevitable march of humanity (still with a small h) through these stages, albeit at different rates in different places, was the great story of history. Variations among nations and groups might continue, but they paled in significance next to the common destiny of humanity. Those who continued to view the world in terms of nations and their conflicts—Comte called them “retrogrades”—were caught in old thinking, unable to grasp the new global order being formed by the forces generated by Positivism.
Comte argued that it was time to expand man’s scientific knowledge of the physical world to the social realm. A new science of society, “sociology” (Comte’s term), was the latest and highest of all the sciences. Possession of knowledge of the laws of social movement was what ideally bestowed the title to rule. Comte and his circle were never much impressed by democracy and favored instead one system or another of governance by experts. (Saint-Simon, for whom Comte worked for many years, once proposed running society with “Councils of Newton.”)
But there was an important twist to Comte’s praise of science. In contrast to many who thought that the scientific method and scientific values were sufficient to bind society together, Comte insisted that people had to believe. As faith in the transcendent was no longer -possible in the Positivist age, he called for “replacing God with Humanity.” The aim of this religion without God was to build a global community that assured the betterment of man’s lot. Postulating this objective as an ideal is what Comte meant by Humanity (now with a capital H).
Given the suspicion that many today hold toward religion of any kind, Comte’s insistence on the need for a religion might seem to run counter to modern sensibilities. But set the word religion aside, and it is just on this point that Comte’s thought proves most prescient. The combination of confidence in science and a religious-like enthusiasm was the hallmark of the Obama campaign, just as it is the most salient characteristic of the contemporary progressive impulse. Confidence in experts and the pledge to “restore science to its rightful place” went hand in hand with chants of “Yes we can” and with celebrations of the gift of charismatic leadership.
What was more farfetched was Comte’s plan to establish an organized sect with churches, clergy, and calendar of Positivist saints. His movement in fact never reached much beyond the intellectual elites. But even here -Comte’s thought may be less naïve than it first appears, as he envisaged an initial period of syncretism in which existing Christian sects would adopt the fundamental premises of the new religion without officially becoming part of it. What better describes the theology of many contemporary liberal churches whose full energy in 2008 went into proselytizing for Obama?
There is one point, however, on which Comte’s idea of the Religion of Humanity, was inadequate. Social improvement, however admirable, was too elevated a goal to mobilize people and sustain their devotion. The contemporary movement has gone beyond the original to discover a new and firmer basis for promoting solidarity in the great cause of confronting climate change. Here is a project that can unite people in waging the moral equivalent of war against a common threat. The liturgy has been vastly strengthened by allowing the ecological soldiers to glimpse the moment of their glorious triumph, when, in candidate Obama’s words, “the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal.” This moment marked the dividing time between the pre- and post-Obama eras. The cause is also perfect in its “positivity,” since the threat can only be properly gauged by the disinterested research of the “best science,” the practitioners of which must be granted a central role in planning strategy. Although the recent Copenhagen conference on climate change ended in disappointment (even with Obama’s last minute intervention), the cause has lost none of its appeal. It is the subtext of James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar, which represents the next “flashpoint” in the evolutionary development of Humanity.
The confluence of the Religion of Humanity with the Obama campaign has every appearance of being a providential event. It was prepared by the advent in the 1990s of an ongoing world public opinion, something that had never previously existed. The focus was on views and attitudes about America, a symbol that was constructed under the guidance of the intellectual vanguard. This symbol, known as anti-Americanism, was given a human face in the first decade of this century when it was joined to the personage of George W. Bush. It was invested with every element deemed to be retrograde: the primacy of the nation, a claim of exceptionalism, and a set of principles—“nature and nature’s god”—grounded in theology and metaphysics. The world was depicted as comprising two fundamental “substances,” Bush and non-Bush, that were locked in a cosmic conflict.
Barack Obama’s coming served as the galvanizing force to carry the day for the cause of progress. Although Obama never conceived himself as playing a universal role when he launched his presidential bid, he awakened at some point in the campaign to the realization that he was no longer running merely for president of the United States. He was being selected for the much grander “office” of leader of a new world community. His credentials for this position were impeccable. Humanity as a concept formally includes everyone, but it is especially favorable to those who have previously been excluded from full recognition. (The old aristocrats, in Comte’s description, were hardly part of Humanity.)
Having decided as a young man to identify himself as African-American, Obama was in the category of the dispossessed, a member of a race against which some of the greatest crimes in history were perpetrated. This fact immediately commended him to Western intellectuals at the same time that it enabled him to be the plausible representative of the teeming masses of the Third World. No one from a privileged race could ever have fulfilled this role. Just as important was the fact that Obama is not purely African-American, but a product of amalgamation, what the French approvingly call métissage and Harry Reid describes less felicitously as being “light skinned.” Obama is postracial or, as he himself put it, a “mutt.” This look, favored among international fashion models, represents physically the common denominator of humanity. Religiously, too, Obama, though a Christian, has ties through his father to Islam, a fact he proclaims on some of his overseas trips. He was the embodiment of all men. Finally, while holding these biological qualities of both the dispossessed and of humanity, Obama is a member of the clerisy of the Religion of Humanity, having been credentialed at Columbia, Harvard, and Chicago and stamped as one holding progressive views.
In what measure has Barack Obama as president embraced this other role of leader of Humanity? Americans are now wondering. These concerns first came to light in unsympathetic reactions to Obama’s foreign policy speeches, especially those delivered on foreign soil, that made a point of apologizing for American missteps and wrongs. Realists and pragmatists dismissed these criticisms, arguing that the new approach served America’s interests by lowering the strident tone of the Bush years, thereby opening doors to engagement with other leaders and defusing anti-Americanism. In addition, it was said that Obama could leverage his position as a leader of humanity to help solve general problems like nuclear proliferation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama’s two offices complemented one another, promoting the goals of Humanity while serving America’s interest. By standing above or outside America, he could best help America.
Whatever the plausibility of these arguments, their merit over the past year has been tested and found wanting. Obama’s authority as leader of Humanity has not borne the fruit that many had hoped for, and in any case—as his two trips to Copenhagen have made clear—his standing in the world is now in a free fall. Americans who thought that it is one thing to offer an initial hand to the likes of a Chávez or an Ahmadinejad think it something quite different to continue to offer it after the hand has been flagrantly rejected. To persist is to invite dishonor, both for the office of the president and for the nation. Realism dictates an adjustment. The fact that such a change has been so slow in coming suggests that it is not realism that is Obama’s guiding light, but a commitment to the dogmas of the Religion of Humanity.
Another instance of the conflict Americans now perceive between the two roles comes in the form of Obama’s repeated efforts to blame George W. Bush (or “the last eight years”) for every difficulty or problem that the nation confronts. On first encounter, there would seem to be nothing more in this tactic than an ordinary political calculation designed to win support and deflect criticism. But this technique, which is standard fare for a presidential campaign, at a certain point is bound to appear unpresidential, not only when indulged in before foreign audiences where it seeks to purchase a personal reputation for impartiality at the expense of national unity, but also in domestic affairs. It displays weakness by evidencing a desire to evade responsibility, especially for a president who based his Inaugural Address on calling for “a new era of responsibility.” Opinions may differ on whether the “blame Bush first” policy is obsessive or demagogic, but it is by now clear that it is counterproductive. Persistence bespeaks something more than political miscalculation. For the Religion of Humanity, the attack on Bush, both the man and the “substance,” is a matter of dogma. If Obama were to desist, he would relinquish his higher office.
The same pressure to hew to the dictates of the new religion is evident in the efforts of Obama’s intellectual supporters to save postpartisanship from the simple hoax that most now believe it to have been. Postpartisanship, we are told, never meant anything as mundane as dealing with the other party. It referred instead to working with those who embrace the consensus of the new era. It therefore explicitly excludes the bulk of the Republican party, which comprises those who cling stubbornly to their theology and metaphysics. Only those elements that have adapted or evolved qualify as potential postpartisan partners. The standard for inclusion is not an expression of popular will, but criteria supplied by the idea of progress. What has made many Americans increasingly suspicious of the office of leader of Humanity is their growing perception that it rests ultimately on contempt for the people.
The conflicting demands of the Religion of Humanity and the presidency of the United States have become most apparent in the administration’s approach to dealing with the threat of Islamic terrorism. The Religion of Humanity, by its own reckoning, admits to facing challenges from two quarters: from those who have not yet fully entered the age of Positivism, which includes the terrorists, and from those who are part of the advanced world but who refuse to embrace it, which includes the likes of George W. Bush. In the present situation, these two groups are understood to have a symbiotic relationship. The existence of the terrorists is regrettable, not only because of the physical threat that they pose, but also because, by doing so, they risk strengthening the hand of those in the West who reject the Religion of Humanity. Supporters of the Religion of Humanity therefore believe they have good reason to deny or minimize the danger of terrorism in order to save the world from the even greater danger of the triumph of the retrograde forces. This is the dogmatic basis of political correctness, and Obama and his team have gone to considerable lengths by their policies and by their use of language to hide reality. But reality has a way of asserting itself, and it is becoming clearer by the day that being the leader of Humanity is incompatible with being the president of the United States. No man can serve two masters.
James W. Ceaser is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of politics at the University of Virginia.