03/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama in the Era of Heroes and Fallen Angels

We seem to be in an era of heroes and fallen angels, of sorts. As has often been said, crises present opportunities, which in turn demand heroic leadership. However, such opportunity also raises expectations or insists that we acknowledge the unsavory realities that have previously been unrealized. It is this hero-yearning, and thus hero worship, that we now see in the saturnalia of Barack Obama images and chatter across the globe. The Obama hero worship practiced by so many surely cannot be denied, even by the most ardent detractors who instead refer to it as a "cult of personality" (a perverse reference to Stalinism which is cynically invoked with full awareness of its comparative inaccuracy).

And yet, though Obama is regarded by so many as The One, it is undetermined if he will fulfill that prophecy. The determining factor will be the stimulus legislation, which is trudging ever closer to his desk and which will take a year or two to really show its full recovery dividends. As Obama told the people of Fort Myers, Florida this week, "If stuff hasn't worked, if people don't feel like I've led the country in the right direction then you'll have a new president." So the pertinent question is: will the public's apotheosis of the new president be validated, or will he fail to meet heightened expectations and follow the tradition of other such tragic heroes? Or, to phrase it in a more contemporaneous context, will Obama be US Airways Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, or a member of 'the fallen', such as Alex Rodriguez?

Sullenberger offers a perfect normative metaphor for Obama's task-at-hand: to crash-land a nose-diving economy. And it is obviously preferable to keep such an unadulterated hero-figure in mind these days for the hope that he inspires. However, one cannot help but also notice the repletion of fallen figures of late--those who, each in their own fashion, have failed to live up to the expectations furnished by their respective public. Be it Alex Rodriguez, Michael Phelps, Tom Daschle or even Bernie Madoff and Rod Blagojevich, the current era seems to have far more tragic heroes and revealed swindlers than proverbial messianic demigods.

Of course some of these malefactors are far more deplorable than others. Phelps and A-Rod, for example, are more likely to be forgiven than Blagojevich and Madoff because, though they have failed their fan's expectations, they have apologized (and their crimes pale in comparison). And Obama's recent slip-up with cabinet posts is not even in the same league as the rest of these fallen figures, except that it also hints at this crucial element of failed expectations.

Two years ago, few would have guessed that Barack Obama would be POTUS and yet he is now expected to single-handedly save America. And ironically, one of the prescient few who did see his potential then was Tom Daschle, who now resides with 'the fallen' due to his tax illiteracy and profiteering, but more importantly because he fell short of the peoples' expectations for this administration. Few also would have foreseen the captain of US Airways Flight 1549 becoming a national hero, recipient of New York's "keys to the city", and deemed "a dying breed" by New York Magazine; but this unpredictability is precisely why these figures become such public spectacles.


Though it is no longer in fashion academically, the expectation for Obama seems to resonate from Thomas Carlyle's "Great Man Theory", wherein "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." Obama is perceived as one who comes from above and beyond the Washington muck, and is thus the only one in a position to change the system. But for 'the fallen', perhaps the contrary viewpoint from Herbert Spencer--that society creates men (or women), rather than great men rendering society--is more valid. Phelps, A-Rod and Daschle, the presumably more forgivable of the fallen ones, succumbed to society's more base pressures and thus failed to transform or transcend it. But does it mean they are so despicable?

Or perhaps both theories apply somewhat simultaneously. The modern hero construct always includes select weaknesses, such as kryptonite to Superman. We today have not retained the perfect, deified hero model of antiquity and it is for this reason that Phelps, A-Rod, Daschle, and indeed Obama, stand to overcome their recent slip-ups. Obama especially, whose mistakes have been comparatively minimal, has demonstrated his utmost resilience by moving forward from his cabinet's "tax and nanny" issues with nary a look back (as has his Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, for that matter). The president is now championing his stimulus plan in campaign-like fashion and polls show public approval remaining high. It is also for this reason that the public will most likely remain patient and trust him when he says that, though there is no immediate panacea, recovery will come soon enough.

However this optimistic trust underscores a potential problem as well. The rampant hero worship for Obama tends to dilute the message from his Inaugural address, which called for a new era of responsibility...from everyone. It would be a tragedy for Obama to be perceived as failing because the full weight of recovery was placed on his shoulders alone. Ultimately, it will depend as much on the rest of us as it does on the president. We can all be "greener" or more fiscally responsible. There is also a duty for everyone to hold the new administration accountable for any more flubs. And everyone must stay as individually dedicated to the collectively desired goal as the hero through whom we channel so much hope.

Obama also told the people of Fort Myers that he would make no excuses for himself. Indeed, this would be good advice to everyone else as well. Why should we not impose the same high expectations on ourselves as we now do on our elected leader--hero or not? It seems as though if we don't, Obama's hero-status and current mandate could very well be made irrelevant by our own shortcomings. We may as well set the bar high for ourselves to avoid any self-regrets down the road.