President Obama had some typical applause lines the other night during his State of the Union address, but evidence abounds that there is less and less applause these days outside the Beltway for his performance and policies. Some of that is normal as a presidency moves toward lame duck status, but in Obama’s case it seems to be more pronounced.
Charles Mackay, a nineteenth century Scottish journalist, wrote a fascinating treatise titled, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.” First published in 1841, the book chronicled “the most remarkable instances of those moral epidemics which have been excited, sometimes by one cause and sometimes by another, and to show how easily the masses have been led astray, and how imitative and gregarious men are, even in their infatuations and crimes.”
Mr. Mackay described an assortment of nefarious financial schemes dating back to the early 1700s. He noted that they were then nicknamed “bubbles.” To him, this term was “the most appropriate that imagination could devise,” adding that, “the most absurd and preposterous of all, and which showed more completely than any other, the utter madness of the people, was one started by an unknown adventurer, entitled, ‘A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.’”
When bubbles burst, people who have been hypnotized by their presence tend to be disappointed, like children who see something compelling one moment, only to witness its sudden dissipation. And sometimes there is even disillusionment.
It might be constructive, maybe even essential, to think of the whole Barack Obama phenomenon over the past few years as one of those gigantic bubbles. It captured pan-cultural attention and transcended the humdrum of mere mortal politics. Expectations were inflated. Rational analysis was muted. Look, up in the sky—it’s a bird, it’s a plane, no it’s Super President above the political fray soaring in his designer soap bubble.
The value of Barack Obama’s stock was once sky high. His most devoted followers assumed this upward trend would continue toward utopia. Happy days were just around the corner. You could just feel the love and unity—not to mention the hope and change.
There was a problem, though. No one, not even Barack Obama, could possibly sustain that level of near universal affection and acclaim indefinitely. Human glory tends to be fleeting, especially the political variety. Obama’s bubble is bursting.
And there are many unhappy American campers.
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