Sunday, October 18, 2009

What a Country

Today, I'm sort of feeling like I'm at the apex of a perfect storm.

In many ways, it's a logical extension of something I wrote about yesterday. My article began as a discussion of something that was published in The Hill last week, and it evolved into, in my own words, a pondering of "the gap between 'the idea' of Obama and his actual accomplishments."

The greatness of a leader and the greatness of his/her country tend to be subjective evaluations. It has always fascinated me how many different attitudes about a leader may be found in a random survey of people who all watch the same speech. Pollsters may be able to group responses together and say that XX% approve and XX% disapprove, but the intensity of those responses can vary widely.

It is this way with every president but especially the charismatic ones. There are the truly extreme supporters, who embrace all the positive P.R. and believe that everyone who supports the president sees everything the way they do. In their eyes, he represents what they believe he represents — and everyone who supported him in the election sees it.

But that doesn't take into account that every president who has been elected to the job has been supported by some more casual supporters. Often, they are reported to be "undecided" the weekend before an election — or they are categorized as "leaning" in one direction or another.

In the modern vernacular, I suppose they would be called "swing voters." They have no apparent heartfelt commitment to principles of economics or social issues or international relations. They blow with the wind. In 2008, the prevailing wind came from the Democrats. If the prevailing wind is coming from the Republicans in 2012, they will gravitate in that direction.

They haven't forgotten that, as Obama's most ardent supporters insist upon reminding them, the recession and the monthly parade of job losses began under George W. Bush. They have simply moved on. Their calendar tells them it is October 2009 — not January 2009 or November 2008.

As far as they are concerned, the election wasn't about punishing anyone for the past. It was about making the best possible choice from the available options to lead the nation into the future.

I have never been a "swing voter," but my guess is that, for most of them, if they happen to help elect a president whose actions turn out to be historically important, that's a happy by–product. If they help elect a president who comes up short of expectations, it is a mistake that can be corrected in the next election.

And the wind starts to shift.

But, in spite of winds that seem to be shifting, the myth of the symbolic significance of Obama's persona persists — although, if his persona really was that important, would the doubts endure? Would Saturday Night Live's recent skit alleging the gap between the promises and the achievements have struck a nerve the way it did? Would it have been as difficult to defend the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize?

Today, the lead singer of perhaps the most popular band in the world, Bono, wrote an article in the New York Times in which he said, essentially, that the idea of Obama is the idea of America.

For some, that idea is visible in the symbolic value of a black man being president of a predominantly white nation in which most blacks (but not the president) are descended from slaves. For others, it is the difference in political philosophy that Obama brought to the Oval Office and how it is received globally.

"The world wants to believe in America again because the world needs to believe in America again," Bono writes. "We need your ideas — your idea — at a time when the rest of the world is running out of them."

Before you get carried away with the glowing terms Bono uses about the image — the idea — of America, it is worth noting that there is a reminder today of how easily the nation can be hoodwinked.

Last week, millions of Americans were transfixed by the flight of a balloon believed to be carrying a 6–year–old boy. Authorities now believe the flight of the runaway balloon was staged by the parents, who hoped to parlay the event into a reality show.

It reminds me of 15 years ago, when a young mother named Susan Smith fooled the nation into believing her small children had been kidnapped — and then it turned out that she had been responsible for their drowning deaths because the man she was interested in didn't want children.

Or five years before that, when Americans were easily persuaded that a young man and his pregnant wife had been carjacked and shot. The husband's 9–1–1 call was replayed over and over again for TV viewers, who proved only too eager to accept his version of events — until it was revealed that he had shot his wife himself so he could collect the insurance money and open his own business.

What a country.

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