A year ago, Barack Obama was walking on water. Today he's treading just to stay afloat. A year ago his soaring oratory enraptured a nation. A year later his speeches cannot lift him passed a 50 percent approval rating.
How did the American Messiah become such an ordinary mortal?
Americans are a fiercely independent people and quickly grow suspicious of anyone who poses as a national savior. Sure, they might get behind a knight in shining armor for a bit, especially if his charisma and cadences raise them up from a national funk. But there is always going to be a backlash in a nation that prides itself on being self-made, as opposed to Messiah-made.
Some 233 years ago, the United States broke with the longstanding European tradition of treating a sovereign as a quasi-divine figure. Let other nations call their kings "majesty." 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 Lincoln, Kennedy, and King after their martyrdoms, in their lifetimes they were assailed and criticized.)
Looking back at the past year, one cannot but 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 vast 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 and make it more tolerant, 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 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 to the people 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 the 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 vast cosmic fronts, Obama would instead reach Messianic criteria by being crucified in Massachusetts?
The biggest sign that President Obama has now fallen to earth and disrobed himself of his Messianic cloak was the unbelievable line he used in the State of the Union where he finally conceded his vulnerability: "I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could 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 the Judeo-Christian values that became the bedrock of our republic, 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 millions with scant resources, and redeem all mankind from sin. Humanity for all its righteous action 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. We need Christ to redeem us.
But the Jewish Messiah is 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 a critical mass of virtue that will 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 ultimately takes care of all your needs. In the United States, government is a safety net, helping you to get on your feet when you have fallen 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 and sarcasm 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 the University of Oxford many of the British students viewed the Americans as arrogant interlopers because of their 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, aside from Illinois', the most corrupt in the Union, our property taxes the highest and our schools the worst. Our politicians are tone-deaf to our real 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.
President Obama should view his new-found vulnerability as a blessing. He is fortunate to have discovered early enough in his presidency that saviors are antithetical to the American character. We want leaders who empower us to take control of our lives rather than Messiahs who tell us they know what's best for us, even when we emphatically disagree.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's book The Kosher Sutra has just been published in paperback (HarperOne). He is the founder of This World: The Values Network, which among other things promotes the value of self-reliance. www.shmuley.com.