Barack Obama’s Cult of Personality (Updated)

Barack Obama In a column entitled “Hate Springs Eternal,” Paul Krugman decries the rancor of the Democratic primary contest, which he likens to the style of Richard Nixon.

I won’t try for fake evenhandedness here: most of the venom I see is coming from supporters of Mr. Obama, who want their hero or nobody. I’m not the first to point out that the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality. We’ve already had that from the Bush administration — remember Operation Flight Suit? We really don’t want to go there again.

What’s particularly saddening is the way many Obama supporters seem happy with the application of “Clinton rules” — the term a number of observers use for the way pundits and some news organizations treat any action or statement by the Clintons, no matter how innocuous, as proof of evil intent.

There’s no question that the Clintons sometimes start with the presumption of bad will and slick deception. Some might argue, though, that there’s reason for that.

In any event, though, this is rather rich:

[P]rogressives should realize that Nixonland is not the country we want to be. Racism, misogyny and character assassination are all ways of distracting voters from the issues, and people who care about the issues have a shared interest in making the politics of hatred unacceptable.

Er, hasn’t it been the Clinton campaign — especially Bill Clinton — who have used racism, misogyny and character assassination as ways of distracting voters from the issues?

Krugman is right, though, on one count: There is something of a cult of personality surrounding Obama. Despite a lack of a presidential résumé and a vision for leadership that’s remarkably short on specifics, he’s managed to convince a wide swath of people that he’s going to cure all the ills of our political system.

That’s especially ironic given that much of his support is among the well educated and affluent, who are supposed to be more rational. He’s managed to get most of the liberal intelligentsia on his side and even has people on the center-right swooning.

Update (Alex Knapp): To elucidate a little further on my comment below, I have to disagree with James on the “Obama lacks substance” issue, and I think that Matthew Yglesias has a salient post today on that very issue:

I’ve never heard an anecdote that involved someone talking to Obama about some policy question and walking away feeling he had a notably poor grasp of the issue. Those things do happen, though. I definitely had a conversation with a then-Senator about Iraq in 2006 in which I got the impression that though the Senator was working earnestly to inform himself about the issue his actual knowledge base was shockingly low considering how long the war had been going on. But with Obama? I haven’t heard about it.

Meanwhile, this story is one of several narratives that seems to me to overlook his time in the Illinois State Senate. Obama didn’t have some vast army of staffers to rely on in that role, and he wasn’t just serving time there, either. He successfully authored and passed legislation and impressed a lot of Illinois progressives. Nor is the University of Chicago Law School in the habit of handing out teaching positions to dullards. Which brings to mind the additional point that one way the allegedly vast Clinton edge in policy expertise sometimes gets argued for seems to be defining “policy” in such a way as to make things where Obama clearly has more knowledge, interest, and experience — constitutional law, criminal justice, non-proliferation policy — not count as “policy.” In the real world, appointing federal judges and prosecutors and weighing-in on federal litigation is an important presidential function.

Read the whole thing, because I think Yglesias makes a good case that part of the issue driving this perception of Obama is the media narrative of “Obama the cool kid versus Hillary the policy nerd”, which doesn’t have a lot of merit to it. I disagree with Obama on a number of policy issues, but I appreciate his intellect and more importantly, his instincts. Obviously, I am no mind reader, but everything I’ve seen and read about him seems to indicate a person who is open to working with folks who disagree with him and that he has a thoughtful, conservative temperment. I appreciate both of these things.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. davod says:

    Obamma may be all love and kisses and Kumbaya on the campaign trail but look into how he won his first State seat and you see a different picture. He and some of his staff are every bit as ruthless as the Clinton’s. Just maybe he is smarter in his use of ruthlessness.

    Maybe he gets it from his relation in Kenya who seems to have a scorched earth policy when it comes to opponents in Churches. While you may think this is hitting below the belt, Obamma supported the guy and I have not heard Obamma comment on the attrocites being committed in his relative’s name.

  2. Ben says:

    I’d like to think of myself as a fair observer of the elections, but to me Krugman is beginning to cross the line with his pro-Hillary columns guised as political commentaries. Krugman thinks the only way to get universal health care is through mandates, but that position is very utilitarian, where the ends justify the means. Clinton’s health care plan still “leaves out” millions of people just as she and Krugman claim Obama’s plan does, but at least Obama’s plan doesn’t punish those unfortunate middle classers who always seem to make too much to qualify for gov’t aid, but not enough to afford for things like healthcare/tuition on their own. Clinton will garnish people’s wages if they can’t afford healthcare. Well, geez, that just solves the problem doesn’t it? Because Obama doesn’t want to punish people for their inability to pay for insurance means he’s “less serious” about attaining universal health care. He just wants to do it in a more humane way. And I think it’s completely biased for Krugman to say there are more Hillary-bashers out there than there are Obama-bashers. BOTH campaigns have over-zealous followers, and certainly the majority doesn’t always fall with the Obama camp. I think Hillary’s a very capable and intelligent person, but she has demonstrated poor judgement in the past. That’s just a mere fact, not Hillary-bashing. THe more I follow this campaign, the more respect I actually have for her. However, that doesn’t mean I’m going to forget her Iraq vote, her “kindergarten” memo, or her first fiasco attempt at health care. At least Obama admits when he makes a mistake (i.e. buying his home with Rezko’s aid).

  3. Alex Knapp says:

    a vision for leadership that’s remarkably short on specifics

    You know, I’ve heard this complaint before, but having watched a couple of his speeches and one and half debates I have a pretty good idea of where he stands on most major issues. Reading a handful of articles here and there have given me more. His speeches really do have quite a bit of policy in them–it’s just not structured as a “laundry list” like we’re used to from modern politicians.

  4. Pug says:

    That’s especially ironic given that much of his support is among the well educated and affluent

    Which makes it even more ironic that you would refer to his supporters as a cult, James. It’s a silly characterization. Your’e into Clinton talking points now?

  5. Simon says:

    Message to Paul Krugman: 2000 is over. We’ve moved on, so should you.

  6. LaurenceB says:


    Is there a particular, specific issue on which you believe Obama has been “short on specifics”, while the other candidates have not been?

    Please enlighten us.

  7. Derrick says:

    I’m with LaurenceB in the questioning of the “short on specifics” question. It has become some lame CW that everyone just throws out there instead of a serious angle. Now the point can definitely be made that he often speaks in general terms about the need for change, but he’s talked about and released specifics on every issue from healthcare to Iraq to Iran to deficits and so on. I think that people are looking at speaking style, for which no he isn’t going to spend with power point presentations like our man Mitt. And if anything, the comparison to say McCain who spends about 70% of his time talking about a military strategy that’s already been implemented and gives short shrift to anything domestic should end this specificity line.

  8. biwah says:

    Yes, re “short on specifics”. Lazy journalists and bloggers make the leap from thinking “hey, he’s pretty inspirational” to “he must not have any specific plans.” Somewhere along the way, they skip the part where you read his speeches and/or go to his website and read his entire detailed (and often fairly centrist) agenda.

    And thus, a meme is born.

  9. Triumph says:

    Despite a lack of a presidential résumé and a vision for leadership that’s remarkably short on specifics, he’s managed to convince a wide swath of people that he’s going to cure all the ills of our political system.

    That’s especially ironic given that much of his support is among the well educated and affluent, who are supposed to be more rational.

    As other commentators said, this is one of the silliest things I have ever heard. Obama’s detailed policy positions are easily obtainable on his website and have been the subject of scores of speeches he has made over the past year on issues as far ranging as Iraq, climate change, and health care.

    Compare Obama’s website, for instance, with McCain’s. On the issue of health care, McCain has nothing but a couple dozen platitudinous bullet points–Obama, on the other hand, has a 15 page detailed plan.

    I suspect that James’ main exposure to Obama has been his victory speeches after Iowa and Super Tuesday where he certainly is not going to go into a long dissertation on the specifics of policy–no candidate does that in those situations.

  10. biwah says:

    A near-perfect post on this very issue from none other than Yglesias.

  11. biwah says:

    Sorry, you linked to that in the post. But I would quote a different passage that tells the more politically immediate story:

    it seems to draw support from a kind of implicit Law of Conservation of Virtues — the pretty girl can’t be smart, the not-so-good-looking guy must be really nice — that has people notice that Clinton is well-versed in policy but isn’t a charismatic figure, and Obama is charismatic so it “must” be that he’s not well-versed in policy. He’s cool and she’s the nerd.

    This suits the media’s taste for parallels and lazy narratives into which events can be squeezed. But there’s really not much basis for it.

  12. anjin-san says:

    Another non-story to go with the Hillary five million non-story. zzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    OTB is getting a bit boring…. got anything of substance to spend pixels on?

  13. Veronica says:

    If somebody doesn’t stop Obama now, all those “Jim Jones” like speeches will mesmerize the masses and the Democrats will go down in a McGovern/Mondale type defeat. Yes, we can… yes, we can. Yes we can will the black vote and the far-left loons, but the bread-and-butter Democrats will switch to McCain. My home state of Minnesota will turn red in 2008.

  14. bornonthefourth says:

    I started college during the end of the Reagan Bush era and finished during the Clinton years.New Jack City “poor and disenfranchised” and The Grateful Dead “question authority” opened our eyes back then. I hear the same soar bells ringing today. Hope is a great thought but the lottery has better odds. Obamacans are superficial and uninformed, we will be proud to vote first time republican against him and you. If you want change, recycle or try helping someone out! If you really want change , try to get a white person or a jew into Obamas trinity church. There not allowed! This month they are rewarding Farrakhan with thier annual Trumpet award. Obama and his wife are a fraud and worse than all the others. Have fun spin doctors. Fight for your right to party.