When he first ran for president, Barack Obama evoked fervent loyalty and extravagant dreams in many people. As the first black president, with a rare gift for oratory, he was supposed to inspire us to new heights, end our racial divisions and make America beloved around the world. Campaigning for him, his wife, Michelle, said, “We need a leader who’s going to touch our souls.”
In 2007, Timothy Noah, of the liberal online magazine Slate, created a sardonic regular feature, “The Obama Messiah Watch.” Its stated purpose was to determine whether Obama was “the second coming of our Savior and our Redeemer, Prince of Peace and King of Kings, Jesus Christ.”
Republicans mocked Obama for saying that his arrival would be remembered as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” The right-wing Investor’s Business Daily denounced his “creepy cult of personality” and declared, “In the U.S., we don’t worship our presidents.”
It turns out that many conservatives were just holding out for a creepy cult of their own.
“No one knows the system better than me,” Trump claimed. “I alone can fix it.” Radio host Wayne Allyn Root has likened him to “the second coming of God.” After Election Day, televangelist Paula White implored the almighty to “break and divide every demonic confederacy against the election, against America, against that who you have declared to be in the White House.”
Trump’s legions may have exceeded the devotion Obama inspired. Some waited for hours to see him address a rally where they stood a good chance of contracting a potentially lethal virus. The conservative publication The Bulwark has lamented the folly of his “death cult.”
Obama and Trump were hardly the first of their kind. John F. Kennedy enchanted many Americans during his presidency, and, in death, he was practically canonized. Republicans would like to put Ronald Reagan’s face on Mount Rushmore, even though they’ve abandoned many of his bedrock convictions.
But maybe realism is taking hold. The election of Joe Biden suggests that Americans are not looking for a messiah. He is famous not for soaring speeches but for verbal stumbles.
He has all the charisma of a used snowblower. His general election campaign, lacking boisterous rallies or a festive party convention, was low on excitement.
Americans voted for him because he was a serviceable replacement for the incompetent, incorrigible incumbent. Biden makes poor material for a cult of personality.
That’s a good thing. Americans often look for heroic qualities in their presidents. What is more often essential in a leader, though, are virtues like competence, knowledge, caution and judgment, which can be boring — except when they are missing from the Oval Office, as they have been the past four years.
When Eugene McCarthy took on President Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 Democratic primaries, he was asked what kind of president he would be. “I think I would be adequate,” he replied. The people who voted for Biden may hope he will be a great president. But they chose him in the sober belief that he would be an adequate one.
One thing Biden has going for him is that expectations are comparatively low. No one thinks he is able or willing to transform the nation. If he can merely repair much of the damage done under Trump — to the economy, public health, the environment, race relations and norms of public behavior — many of them will be satisfied. Any additional achievements would be a bonus.
He may also be able to cool passions across the political spectrum. Messianic figures have a way of rousing intense feelings not just in their followers but in their opponents. That’s one reason Obama was the target of such vitriol in spite of his generally moderate policies.
Trump treated anyone who criticized him as a loathsome heretic, which only intensified the criticism.
Biden will be villainized on the right, but his affable personality and temperate tactics should take some of the air out of the effort. His restoration of presidential decorum may help soothe the resentment of many Americans who voted against him. A president who treats his opponents as potential friends will have fewer enemies.
The bad news is that Biden will not be a savior. The good news is that he doesn’t pretend to be.