No Holds Barred: From messiah to mortal

How did the 'American messiah' Obama become such an ordinary mortal?

By BY SHMULEY BOTEACH
February 2, 2010 00:40
US President Barack Obama speaks at the University

obama pointing 311. (photo credit: AP)

A year ago Barack Obama was walking on water. Today he’s treading it. A year ago his soaring oratory enraptured a nation. A year later his speeches can’t lift him past a 50 percent approval rating.

How did the American messiah become such an ordinary mortal?

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What President Obama failed to understand is that America doesn’t do well with messiahs of any sort, preferring self-redemption. Americans are a fiercely independent people, and quickly grow suspicious of anyone who poses as a savior. Sure, they might get behind a knight in shining armor for a while, especially if his charisma lifts them out of a national funk. But there is always going to be a backlash in a nation that prides itself on being self-made.

Two hundred and thirty three years ago, the United States broke with the long-standing European tradition of treating sovereigns as quasi-divine figures. Americans called George III a tyrant. While the French and Austrians spoke of the divine right of kings, Thomas Jefferson responded with the inalienable rights of the people. Ever since then, Americans have treated government in general, and figures who promise salvation in particular, with deep suspicion. (And while we may worship the memories of Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King after their martyrdoms, in their lifetimes they were assailed and criticized.)

Looking back at the past year, one must conclude that Obama was gripped by something of a messiah complex. How else to explain a president who fired on so many dizzying cylinders that it was a challenge simply to keep up with his initiatives? This was a president who, in his first year, was going to tackle health care, rehabilitate the image of America abroad, modernize the Islamic world, fix the banking industry, end global warming, save Afghanistan, withdraw from Iraq, repair a shattered economy, bring Kennedyesque elegance to the White House, end the Middle-East conflict and transform brutal dictators like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez into huggable, peace-loving democrats through the power of his personal charm. Tack on ending global hunger and ushering in world peace and you essentially have it. Obama, savior of mankind.

But as Obama has now learned, it’s not the big things that ultimately matter, but the little, boring ones. Who would have thought that a man so great would have been humbled by a problem so mundane as simple jobs? With one in five American men unemployed, the nation looked at his globe-trotting histrionics and wondered, do we need a savior or a simple chief executive? Who would have thought that rather than making real progress on any of these cosmic fronts Obama would instead reach messianic status by being crucified in Massachusetts?

THE BIGGEST sign that Obama has fallen to earth was the unbelievable line he used in the State of the Union address, in which he finally conceded his vulnerability: “I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could do it alone.”



When I heard Obama finally say these words, I was reminded of Jethro’s admonition to his son-in-law Moses after that exalted leader also made the error of believing that leadership meant performing for, rather than empowering, the people: “You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people who are with you, for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”

Dennis Prager often makes the point that America was founded by Old Testament (as opposed to New Testament) Christians. In other words, our founding fathers, in embracing Judeo-Christian values, put more emphasis on the Judeo than the Christian part. Nowhere is this more visible than in the American rendering of leadership.

The Christian messiah is an all-encompassing divinity, able to bring the dead back to life, feed thousands with scant resources and redeem all mankind from sin. Humanity is woefully inadequate and sinful, and is therefore utterly dependent on the Christian messiah for salvation. It is not the people but Jesus who ultimately does the heavy lifting.

But the Jewish messiah is a mortal. He will be nothing more than a great wise man who will empower the people to believe in their capacity for self-redemption, and help humanity achieve the critical mass of virtue necessary to swing the world into a more perfect state.

In this you begin to see the difference between the socialist and capitalist tendencies of Europe and the United States. In Europe, government is a big uncle who takes care of all your needs. In the US, government is a safety net, helping you get on your feet when you fall, but expecting you to walk on your own.

When I lived in England I was amazed at just how submissive to authority the people could be. True, the press is a rottweiler, snapping at everyone in power. And the citizenry likewise drip with cynicism toward their leaders. But it stops there. The idea of a Tea Party movement to demand, say, a lowering of taxation would be about as likely as the British dropping cricket and adopting baseball.

It was this aspect of Britain that drove me crazy. As an American, I had been raised to make my voice heard. But at Oxford many of the British students viewed the Americans as arrogant interlopers because of this very tendency to make their presence felt.

Little did I realize that, after 11 years in Europe, I would return to live in a state that somehow allowed its politicians to run roughshod over its citizenry. Every day we in New Jersey read about how our politicians are among the most corrupt in the Union, our property taxes the highest, our schools the worst, our politicians tone-deaf to our needs, with little price to pay.


But now even we in New Jersey are waking up and taking government back. Two weeks ago we inaugurated a new governor after – finally – getting fed up with being ripped off by out-of-control taxes and poor services.

Obama should view his new-found vulnerability as a blessing. He is fortunate to have discovered early in his presidency that saviors are antithetical to the American character. We want leaders who empower us, rather than messiahs who tell us they know what’s best.

The writer’s book The Kosher Sutra has just been published in paperback (HarperOne). He is the founder of This World: The Values Network, which promotes self-reliance. www.shmuley.com.


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