CRB: Our false messiah

Today we continue our preview of the new (Summer) issue of the Claremont Review of Books. Subscribe here for the heavily subsidized price of $19.95 and get online access thrown in for free.

Yesterday we featured CRB editor Charles Kesler’s meditation on “The Obama transformation versus the Reagan revolution.” University of Virginia Professor James Ceaser deepens our consideration of the Obama phenomenon in his review “The one.” The review is short and biting.

In the review Professor Ceaser introduces us (me) to Morton Keller, “one of the most accomplished historians of our time.” Professor Ceaser first acquaints us (me) with Keller: “Over the past half century he has developed what is virtually a new field concentrating on the history of American political and institutional structures. In a series of books that span nearly a half century of which Affairs of State (1977) is the best known, he has examined the growth in state power, the development of regulatory and bureaucratic instruments, and the shifts in the sub-constitutional arrangements of modern governance.”

Professor Ceaser then takes up Keller’s new book, Obama’s Time: A History. In Keller’s account, according to Professor Ceaser, Obama is a man with a messianic disposition; he sees himself as a messianic figure.

We first noted Obama’s messianic disposition in the ludicrous peroration of his June 3, 2008 speech in St. Paul after nailing down the Democratic presidential nomination. Here was a man who had come to offer belief to nonbelievers.

Professor Ceaser observes:

It is a known fact that it takes two to messiah; if there is to be an object of worship, there must be a ready supply of worshippers. The students and colleagues at the University of Chicago who cast an admiring gaze at him were only the minutest harbinger of what took place during the 2008 presidential campaign. That campaign—one of the most remarkable in American history—had a profound effect on Obama. Displaying until then only symptoms of early onset messiah syndrome, he progressively developed the condition in its purest and most advanced form. Nor is it difficult to understand why. Imagine being lauded daily by the most astute political analysts for your intelligence and insight, being told by celebrities that your every utterance is either a gem of wisdom or a pearl of inspiration, and being feted by adoring crowds, especially of the young, for your coolness. The merging of mass politics and mass culture reached a new stage, as Obama became a global icon. Never has any candidate—not even John F. Kennedy—endured such a symphony of sycophancy or enjoyed such a festival of flattery.

Subjected to this unrelenting adulation, only a person of profound moderation and self-knowledge could have resisted. Barack Obama is not that person.

Keller allows the reader to gauge the fullness of Obama’s inflated self-image by recalling an instance when he embraced a more sober evaluation of his office. It was this rare concession, however short-lived, that proved newsworthy. At the beginning of 2014, he had one of those serious sit-downs with New Yorker editor David Remnick, a person of intellectual parts in his own right as well as a great admirer of the president. In the relaxed atmosphere of this high-level exchange, Obama stepped back to reflect on matters, observing that the presidency is laden with structural institutional realities. He is “essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history.” From the messiah commanding the future to a bit player in a sports drama, the plunge seemed almost poignant. As for the actual point—that a president is constrained by structural realities—it is an insight that, one might hope, any occupant of this office—not to mention someone who has taught constitutional law—would have had before assuming the job.

It sounds to me as though Keller’s book has an important contribution to make as we struggle to understand and overcome the profound damage Obama has done to the Constitution and the rule of law.

NOTE: For closely related observations, see Steve Hayward’s “The socialist dream will never die (2).”