Obama Personality Cult Redux

Obama Personality Cult Redux Sara Robinson has an interesting examination of the question of Barack Obama’s cult of personality.

She begins by a look at the literature on actual cults and shows why the Obama campaign doesn’t qualify. While worthwhile from a technical standpoint, though, that’s not really what the debate is about. Perhaps “cult” is a poor word choice but people understand the shorthand: He’s running on personality rather than issues.

Her retort to that, though, is well taken:

As I pointed out my very first week on this blog, the GOP didn’t come to power by talking about plans and policies; they did it by using strongly emotional appeals that grabbed people by the gut and didn’t let them go. Theirs was never a movement based on reason. It was, from the very beginning, a movement of hearts and souls. And it was that deep, emotionally sustaining commitment that drew people in so deeply that they were willing to give 25 years of their lives to bringing about the New World Order their leaders promised them. We may hate what they’ve accomplished — but we’re never going to be able to do better until we can inspire that same kind of passion for change.

And Obama’s doing just that. He’s tapped into a deeply pressurized seam of repressed fury within the American electorate, and he’s giving it voice, a focus, and an outlet. Are the results scary? You bet: these people want change on a scale that much of the status quo should find terrifying. Are they unreasoning? The followers may be — but as long as their leader keeps a cool head, that’s not as much of a problem right now as we might think; and the heat will dissipate naturally in time. Is this kind of devotion even appropriate? You bet. You don’t get the kind of deep-level change we need without first exposing and channeling people’s deep discontent. Obama’s change talk may be too vague for most people’s tastes (including mine); but the fact is that if we’re serious about enacting a progressive agenda, rousing people’s deepest dreams and desires and mobilizing that energy is exactly how it’s going to happen. And Obama’s the first candidate we’ve had in a generation who really, truly gets this.

At some level, I disagree with the oversimplification of the appeal of the campaigns waged by Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich to bring Republicans to the presidency and control of the Congress. There were indeed rational policy platforms front and center in those campaigns.

Fundamentally, though, Robinson is right. Movements are based largely on appeal to people at the instinctual, visceral level rather than on the plane of platform.

Gingrich was a policy wonk’s policy wonk. But he was also a master of focus group-tested language. Take a look at the Republican Contract with America. Its legislative agenda combined wonkery with gut level rhetoric masterfully:

1. THE FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY ACT: A balanced budget/tax limitation amendment and a legislative line-item veto to restore fiscal responsibility to an out- of-control Congress, requiring them to live under the same budget constraints as families and businesses.

2. THE TAKING BACK OUR STREETS ACT: An anti-crime package including stronger truth-in- sentencing, “good faith” exclusionary rule exemptions, effective death penalty provisions, and cuts in social spending from this summer’s “crime” bill to fund prison construction and additional law enforcement to keep people secure in their neighborhoods and kids safe in their schools.

3. THE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY ACT: Discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by prohibiting welfare to minor mothers and denying increased AFDC for additional children while on welfare, cut spending for welfare programs, and enact a tough two-years-and-out provision with work requirements to promote individual responsibility.

4. THE FAMILY REINFORCEMENT ACT: Child support enforcement, tax incentives for adoption, strengthening rights of parents in their children’s education, stronger child pornography laws, and an elderly dependent care tax credit to reinforce the central role of families in American society.

5. THE AMERICAN DREAM RESTORATION ACT: A S500 per child tax credit, begin repeal of the marriage tax penalty, and creation of American Dream Savings Accounts to provide middle class tax relief.

6. THE NATIONAL SECURITY RESTORATION ACT: No U.S. troops under U.N. command and restoration of the essential parts of our national security funding to strengthen our national defense and maintain our credibility around the world.

7. THE SENIOR CITIZENS FAIRNESS ACT: Raise the Social Security earnings limit which currently forces seniors out of the work force, repeal the 1993 tax hikes on Social Security benefits and provide tax incentives for private long-term care insurance to let Older Americans keep more of what they have earned over the years.

8. THE JOB CREATION AND WAGE ENHANCEMENT ACT: Small business incentives, capital gains cut and indexation, neutral cost recovery, risk assessment/cost-benefit analysis, strengthening the Regulatory Flexibility Act and unfunded mandate reform to create jobs and raise worker wages.

9. THE COMMON SENSE LEGAL REFORM ACT: “Loser pays” laws, reasonable limits on punitive damages and reform of product liability laws to stem the endless tide of litigation.

10. THE CITIZEN LEGISLATURE ACT: A first-ever vote on term limits to replace career politicians with citizen legislators.

One can argue, certainly, that this is very policy driven. Without question, clicking through and reading the legislation (available at the link) gives you detail and substance. But there were no hyperlinks in TV Guide.

But look at the names: Responsibility, American Dream, Fairness, Common Sense, Job Creation, Family, etc. Brilliant, emotive appeal. What decent person could be opposed to these things?

From my standpoint, Obama is doing the emotive part without as much substantive backing as Gingrich and Reagan. But maybe that’s just a function of selective memory.

Photo: The Daily F.O.S Blog via Google

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Blogosphere, Congress, Religion, The Presidency, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. Christopher says:

    “Obama is doing the emotive part without as much substantive backing as Gingrich and Reagan”

    Uh, ya think?!? DUH!!!!

    Barack Hussein Obama is either an empty suit, or he is too embarrassed by what he believes in to actually talk about how his policies if he were prez. Which is it, libs?

    Don’t believe me, libs? Go to his website. http://www.barackobama.com
    His top two ideas? in order of importance: cut taxes, increase federal spending. OMG! Just the kind of CHANGE we need! lol

  2. Triumph says:

    Obama Personality Cult Redux

    It is clear that this guy is trying to cultivate some weird Jim Jones following by mixing the philosophy of Pol Pot with a Sendero Luminoso-style organization.

    As such, B. Hussein should be feared as an enemy of liberty.

    Remember: you can’t spell “Obama” without “Mao.”

  3. Tano says:

    I disagree with your thesis James. Obama has as detailed a policy platform as does Hillary, and more than McCain. Does he laundry-list it in a victory speech on primary night, the way Hillary might be wont to do? No. Does he run through it in his stump speech, and moreso in longer speeches. Yes he does. Is it all laid out on his website? Yes.

    The most blindlingly obvious part of his campaign is his eloquence, his talk of core principles and the excitement it all generates. To the lazy, its easy to write that up, contrast it with the wonkish Hillary, and then set up the contrast of the speaker vs the doer, the demagouge vs the wonk. Reminds me of the “dumb blonde” phenomenon. You look at the stunningly beautiful woman and assume she cant have brains, because one is trasnfixed by the most obvious. The perhaps no-more intellegent, but unattractive one will be recognized for their intellegence, for there are no distractions.

    I sense the standard Republican whipsaw argument going on here: “He is a deeply committed socialist – he stands for nothing”.

  4. James Joyner says:

    I sense the standard Republican whipsaw argument going on here: “He is a deeply committed socialist – he stands for nothing”.

    In my own case, at least, I think Obama’s a really smart guy with a pretty strong sense of what he wants to accomplish. My argument is simply that his appeal is his charisma and charm rather than his platform. He’s consciously downplayed issues to avoid alienating anyone — to a greater extent than Hillary or McCain, all do it to some extent — and kept it on a more generic level of “hope” and “change.”

  5. Barry says:

    And many of the policies of Newt were either substantless, or bad. The Contract with America was a promise to bring things to a vote. The GOP Congress could have brought each and every item to a vote, voted against them, and have kept their word. Not exactly a high bar to clear.

    Item 1 “…requiring them to live under the same budget constraints as families and businesses. ”
    This is the sort of language that appeals to people who don’t understand the difference between the federal government of the USA and a business or a family.

    Item 2: “…“good faith” exclusionary rule exemptions,…” Isn’t that better termed ‘gutting the fourth amendment?
    “… cuts in social spending from this summer’s “crime” bill to fund prison construction”
    Because cuts in social spending won’t have bad effects.

    And so on.

  6. Steven Donegal says:

    James, you may be right that Obama’s primary appeal is his rhetoric. But in a campaign against an old white guy whose campaign message seems to be “Bush, only competent”, the hope and change rhetoric is a landslide winner.

  7. Pug says:

    His top two ideas? in order of importance: cut taxes, increase federal spending. OMG!

    Just add an unpopular war and we’ll have another George W. Bush.

  8. just me says:

    What I see among Obama supporters is an almost Obama worship.

    I am sure he has ideas with regard to policy, but his message isn’t his ideas, and those who are in his camp talk more about his charisma than what he believes.

    The only exception I note are those who are rabidly against the war and want all soldiers home now-they seem to believe that Obama is the only candidate who will deliver this.

    I think they have a point-he probably is the only candidate who will deliver anything close to what they want.

  9. sam says:

    My argument is simply that his appeal is his charisma and charm rather than his platform.

    Well, see Matt Yglesias’s page, entry: Obama on the Economy


    14 Feb 2008 02:41 pm

  10. Christopher says:

    Tano, You need to get your glasses fixed. Detailed? Go to Barack Hussein Obama’s website and have someone read it to you. ZERO detail outside of his top two ideas, in order of importance: cut taxes, increase federal spending.

    LOL you libs have selective reading now as well!

  11. Paul says:

    Uh, James, I think you are thinking about Paulbots. Obama has received millions of votes from people who are not at all obsessed with some idea that Obama walks on water. I take it you live in northern Virginia? Walk down your street and talk to people, you shouldn’t have to go more than two or three houses before you find someone eminently regular who voted for him. Are there some overly zealous supporters? Sure, kooks are everywhere in every stripe. But that isn’t who made him the frontrunner for the nomination, regular people did that.

  12. Tlaloc says:

    Obama is doing the emotive part without as much substantive backing as Gingrich and Reagan.

    Gingrich, okay. But Reagan? The guy was the very definition of charismatic but vapid. He was nothing but a face for an administration that actually had plans, most of them criminal, some of them nothing short of treasonous (why does Ollie North still draw air?).

  13. Our Paul says:

    There is no doubt Obama is a powerful orator, but keep in mind that when he started out, 6 months ago, he was untested, with low name and identity recognition. Since then he has gained both, and now he is a black man, with a funny name…

    Could he have gotten this far on a silver tongue, or is it that there are a lot of people that are really, really ticked off out there?

  14. Christopher says:

    Tlaloc, when you were a crew member of the starship Enterprise, on Star Trek, and the Romulens were rounding up people and killing them, was that like you feel now about us conservatives? And how does Capt. Kirk feel about it?

    You don’t like Reagan? Big surprise. To u all republicans should be rounded up and shot I suppose.

  15. Jane says:

    The photos of Obama supporters show they look inspired. Which reminds me of the Pentecostist movement, whose members report feeling chill down their spine. Read some reports on Obama supporters and you do question about the Obama phenomenon. The irrational eruption into higly technologic skilled societies was predicted by Max Weber, father of sociology. I can’t wait for Obama to be president so we can see some trance performance groups on Tv shows.