Peter Wehner on Obama the Phenom

Your reading assignment for this weekend is this thoughtful and insightful piece by Peter Wehner of Commentary Magazine . In it, Mr. Wehner describes the press adoration of Obama and gets to the roots of his current enormous popularity:

We are in the midst of a political phenomenon. It is fairly extraordinary, and perhaps beyond anything we have seen in our lifetime. Our new president, Barack Obama, is not only the head of government; he has become a cultural symbol with rock-star appeal. I know people – lifelong Republican voters -- who at one point viewed Obama with something close to contempt, who began to warm to him a bit during the presidential debates, and who now wish they had cast their vote for Obama. He takes office with his popularity near 80 percent and the political winds at his back.

What explains this appeal?

For one thing, Obama is benefiting from the support and unity that usually accompanies a new president. Once an election has been decided, most people sheath their political swords and are inclined to give the new president the benefit of the doubt.

Second, Obama has made very few unforced errors. The transition period was relatively smooth. His major appointments were fairly centrist and in some cases (like reappointing Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense) inspired.

Third, Obama is the object of unprecedented media adoration. Part of it, of course, is because he is the first black man to be elected president, which is an extraordinary and authentically moving achievement in American history. But ideology is also at work. If, say, Clarence Thomas had been elected president, the media attention would not be anything like what we have witnessed.

I find Obama to be an interesting and in many ways an attractive figure, but watching the media coverage of him over the last several days has been embarrassing. Reporters and commentators speak breathlessly and uncritically about Obama; their legs buckle in his presence and when he is on their minds. There is a palpable sense of reporters wanting his affirmation, his approval, his blessing. Obama is everything they wish they were. And so they have suspended almost all their critical faculties. One gets the sense that media figures are speaking and writing with the goal of receiving a pat on the head, a wink and a “well-done,” from Obama and his team. If they can’t all be a part of his administration, they want to be a part of his Movement.

Peter also cautions that Obama's appeal is "largely aesthetic and personality-based." He's hip. He's cool. All the kewl kids think he's the bee's knees. Unlike Reagan whose ideas gave him such a broad base of support. 

And Peter has this warning for The One:

But precisely because this appeal is largely aesthetic rather than substantive, because it is not grounded in things deep or permanent, its durability is limited. Reality will intrude. A million watt smile, fashionable sunglasses, and a nice jump shot are fine – I wish I possessed each of them – but one can confidently assume that Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Hassan Nasrallah, and Hugo Chavez are immune to their charms. Inflation, deflation, and unemployment will not be determined by the eloquence of Obama’s rhetoric, the dinners he attends, or the columnists and reporters he seduces.

My point is really a rather simple one: Obama will be judged by the outcome of events. The other things are fine -- but in the end, they are far less important, and in some cases they are evanescent. People magazine and the Style section of the Washington Post are fun, but they are not serious.

Presidents are so overexposed in the media that, like a TV sitcom, the people eventually tire of watching them. Unless Obama can keep the masses entertained, they will tire of his shtick and move on to something else.