12/12/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Love

Reposted from Foreign Policy In Focus

After suffering through an abusive relationship, many people will fall in love "on the rebound." They finally escape the clutches of an ogre only to jump, often without looking, into the embrace of another person, any other person. This leap of love is sometimes a lucky one, sometimes not.

The last seven years of the Bush administration were indeed abusive. And the rebound effect has been so strong that even a good number of alpha-male conservatives -- Colin Powell, Francis Fukuyama, Christopher Buckley -- fell into the Obama embrace. The incoming president has seemed like such a good match. He's a good listener. He's patient. He shows grace under pressure. He's good with little kids. What a catch!

Beyond these attributes of a sensitive executive, Obama promises to repair some of the damage done by our last bad choice. He is already getting ready to tackle global warming. He will likely roll back the dangerous subversion of the U.S. constitution known as the "unitary executive," which the previous president used to bypass congressional checks and balances. He has indicated a healthy regard for nuclear abolition. On the economy, the president-elect leans in the direction of FDR at a time when the current crisis "has put just about everyone in touch with his inner New Dealer," as Steve Coll writes in The New Yorker. So, what's not to like?

Alas, our deep state of infatuation with Barack Obama tempts us to look the other way when he does or say things that are, frankly, unlovely. For instance, when he talks about change and brings in a bunch of Clinton-era Old Dealers, including the unrepentant Lawrence Summers, we wax rhapsodic about a smooth transition and the return of experienced hands. When he talks about the need to redirect our attention from Iraq to Afghanistan -- even when the latter conflict is going just as poorly as the former -- we thrill that he will fight the Good War. When he talks about maintaining our military capacity -- even as we spend a budget-popping $700 billion on senseless wars, obsolete weapons systems, and unpopular military bases -- we talk about the need for Democrats to stand tall and protect their flanks from patriotism-impugning conservatives.

This isn't love. Nor is this, strictly speaking, a honeymoon period. Instead, we are in limerence.

Limerence, a term coined some years ago, defines a state often mistaken for love. Those overtaken by limerence experience obsessive longing for another person. They subject the other person to often irrationally positive evaluations. They develop a degree of emotional dependency on the object of their obsession. And they interpret even the slightest sign of affection in the other as a declaration of reciprocal love. But the love is imaginary. Obama promised to bring a puppy dog to the White House. We are that puppy dog.

How else can we explain such an outpouring of affection for such a cool customer as Barack Obama? He's a policy wonk who deflected most questions during the campaign with vague pronouncements of change (a wise strategy but not exactly love-connection material). The ugly emotions of the minority of Obama-haters, stoked by that malign cheerleader Sarah Palin, can be easily explained by racism and various strains of fundamentalism. But the love for Obama, so visible on the Internet and in the faces of celebrants on Election Day, cannot be explained by his rhetorical brilliance alone. As Freud might say, something else is going on here.

And it's not just Americans. After all, the Bush administration had an abusive relationship with just about everyone in the world. (Well, perhaps the relationship with Tony Blair was a bit kinkier.) The international community -- and the U.S. elections created, for a brief time, a truly international community -- is on the rebound as well. We're all, from sea to shining sea and from the axis of evil to the community of democracies, in a state of limerence.

I'm sure Obama is a nice guy. But he's a politician. And politicians respond not to puppy love but to pressure. Recall the dog days of the Clinton administration, when idealistic multilateralism had descended into naked unilateralism. Then, too, we were on the rebound. Then, too, we had felt abused by the previous lords of misrule. Then, too, Monica aside, we fell out of love. This time around, we will applaud Obama for every wise foreign policy decision he makes, not because we love him but because he has done the right thing. And if does the wrong thing, as inevitably he will, we will not let limerence stir our hearts and cloud our vision. Such is the respect that our president-elect demands and deserves. As a democrat, rather than the leader of a personality cult, Obama would have it no other way.

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