16 Nov 2013

The Day the Obama Magic Died

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Fouad Ajami, in the Wall Street Journal, comments on the recent dissolution of the illusion.

The current troubles of the Obama presidency can be read back into its beginnings. Rule by personal charisma has met its proper fate. The spell has been broken, and the magician stands exposed. We need no pollsters to tell us of the loss of faith in Mr. Obama’s policies—and, more significantly, in the man himself. Charisma is like that. Crowds come together and they project their needs onto an imagined redeemer. The redeemer leaves the crowd to its imagination: For as long as the charismatic moment lasts—a year, an era—the redeemer is above and beyond judgment. He glides through crises, he knits together groups of varied, often clashing, interests. Always there is that magical moment, and its beauty, as a reference point. …

Forgive the personal reference, but from the very beginning of Mr. Obama’s astonishing rise, I felt that I was witnessing something old and familiar. My advantage owed nothing to any mastery of American political history. I was guided by my immersion in the political history of the Arab world and of a life studying Third World societies.

In 2008, seeing the Obama crowds in Portland, Denver and St. Louis spurred memories of the spectacles that had attended the rise and fall of Arab political pretenders. I had lived through the era of the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser. He had emerged from a military cabal to become a demigod, immune to judgment. His followers clung to him even as he led the Arabs to a catastrophic military defeat in the Six Day War of 1967. He issued a kind of apology for his performance. But his reign was never about policies and performance. It was about political magic.

In trying to grapple with, and write about, the Obama phenomenon, I found guidance in a book of breathtaking erudition, “Crowds and Power” (1962) by the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti. Born in Bulgaria in 1905 and educated in Vienna and Britain, Canetti was unmatched in his understanding of the passions, and the delusions, of crowds. The crowd is a “mysterious and universal phenomenon,” he writes. It forms where there was nothing before. There comes a moment when “all who belong to the crowd get rid of their difference and feel equal.” Density gives the illusion of equality, a blessed moment when “no one is greater or better than another.” But the crowd also has a presentiment of its own disintegration, a time when those who belong to the crowd “creep back under their private burdens.”

Read the whole thing.

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David Boaz adds:

The Day the Magic Died
(Lines inspired by the WSJ headline “When the Obama Magic Died.”)

A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that magic used to make ‘em smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while

But October made me shiver
With every paper they delivered
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step

I can’t remember if I cried
When the papers said I lied
But something touched me deep inside
The day the magic died

And while I read a book of Marx
The party gathered in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the magic died

So bye-bye, my Obamacare
Took my browser to the website, but the website was bare
And them good old boys were losin’ all their health care,
Singin’ “This’ll be the way that I die
This’ll be the way that I die”

H/T Don McLean

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