Feature

The Obama illusion

Barack Obama faces a heavy burden of expectations from the rest of the world, just as Shrum has said.

Many Europeans hope that Obama will somehow lead America to being less obnoxiously American: less religious, less nationalist, less self-certain, less ready to use force, a country of fewer guns and more tramcars.

In the Middle East, many hope he will undo—or at least de-emphasize—the U.S.-Israel alliance.

In Russia, China, and Iran, leaders may well assess that a President Obama will be less assertive and more accommodating.

And in Africa, those dancing Kenyan villagers we saw on Election night plainly expect that a mighty torrent of American money will soon be heading their way.

Probably, almost all those expectations will be disappointed. (OK, maybe not China’s and Russia’s.) What then?

Ah, then my crystal ball goes blurry. Here, however, are two alternative hypotheses, both of which I suspect will be largely realized.

Hypothesis one:

The world is heading for massive Obama disillusionment as its Obama expectations are deflated one by one.

America is too big and its policy consensus too deep for Obama to transform the U.S. in the way in which his most ardent international supporters would wish—even supposing he wanted to himself.

He may end the increase in military spending; he won't dare cut it very much. America in 2012 will still spend more on its military than the rest of the world combined.

He may devote more energy to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But there are tight political limits to how much pressure he can deploy against Israel.

The Senate will not ratify the Kyoto treaty on global warming or the Rome treaty that would subject the U.S. to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

And while Democratic presidents have more enthusiastically pretended to care about the United Nations than Republicans have, from Truman to Clinton they have never hesitated to ignore it when it got in their way.

As for those Kenyan villagers, they will soon discover that Democrats find it tougher than Republicans to increase spending on foreign aid. An enterprising reporter who visits Kenya six months from now will be able to collect hundreds of disappointed quotes from Obama relatives: “My cousin was elected president and all I got was this lousy tee shirt.”

Hypothesis two:

All of the above may be true, but none of it will matter. For much of the world, Obama is not a man but an icon. And icons never disappoint, because they exist in the realm of myth, not the realm of politics.

To millions of people, Obama represents a certain set of attitudes, a certain style of aesthetics, an inarticulate compilation of yearnings. Those feelings are not political, and politics will not affect them. Does it matter that John F. Kennedy was not a very good president? Does it matter that Marilyn Monroe dyed her hair or that Che Guevera was a mass murderer? Not to those who blazon their images on their sweatshirts!

Will it be that way for Obama too? If so, Shrum can rest assured that the menu at his favorite trattoria in Florence will continue to feature the owner’s grandchild in an Obama tee shirt. That will say a great deal about the trattoria owner. It will say nothing about the Obama administration.

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