Barack Obama is the tipping-point man, the meme of the moment, the miracle cure for that chronic American malady: feelin' bad about things.
Obama may be "all that," as they say, but let's be clear: Americans are in thrall not with Obama, but with the idea of Obama. His supporters have endowed him with near-mystical powers, not unlike the old Hollywood stereotype of the wise and mystical black person who materializes as a deus ex machina to save the white protagonist. Think Bagger Vance.
As one who swooned early over Obama -- the handsome bi-man of unity -- and wrote like a love-drunk teenybopper nearly four years ago, I'm familiar with his spell. He's got It and it's easy to be seduced by a charming idea with a dazzling smile.
But do Americans really love Obama the executive? Obama the commander in chief? Obama the vetoer? Obama the decider? (No need to make comparisons to George W. Bush. He's not running.)
Or do they merely love Obama the fixer? The change agent? The audacious merchant of hope?
It's all about hope, really. And greatgodawmighty, we do love hope.
Hope fills the chasm left gaping and raw by the vicissitudes of reality.
But hope is not a policy. Hope is the prayer proffered over a lover's sickbed; hope is the farmer's baleful eye cast on a white sky; hope is the captive breath as the groom says, "I do."
We all learn eventually that hope takes you only so far. The rest is hard work and clear thinking. Keeping hope alive is dandy, but keeping your wits is better.
Whether Obama is surprised by the amazing grace he finds strewn along his path is hard to say but he seems at ease in his role as presumptive savior. Whence the source of the crowds' adoration?
Politicians keep saying that Americans want leadership. Do they? Or is it followership they crave? Someone to attach their needs to? To tote their worries? To mirror their better angels?
Whatever his qualifications for the job, the crowds chanting "O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma!" betray an undertow of hysteria. This is not the candidate of reason, but of passion. Of emotion. Sen. Good Vibes.
A handful of voters may have some passing knowledge of Obama's policy positions, but it's a safe bet most couldn't get past the keywords "change"
and "hope" -- and the refrain: He was always against the war. It's pretty easy to claim superior vision with hindsight, especially when your vote wasn't required.
Mainly, an Obama presidency allows Americans to put a period at the end of a very long sentence. With a black president, the sins of slavery are not forgiven or forgotten, but we can move along. Nothing left to see here.
Obama smoothly, strategically and subtly mines the well of white guilt. In his acceptance speech after his Iowa sweep -- which sounded an awful lot like the speech of a president, or at least a nominee, rather than the pick of a few sturdy Iowans -- Obama liberated his inner Martin Luther King.
Launching into the singsong cadences of King's "I Have A Dream"
speech, Obama crooned: "They saaaaid. They saaaaid. They saaaaid this day would never come. They saaaaid our sights were set too high. They saaaaid this country was too divided ... but on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do."
You don't suppose he'd been working on that one, do you? And who are "they"? Who said this day would never come? Who said whose sights were set too high?
No one lately and no one in Obama's relatively golden experience.
Destined for the historical audio files, Obama's speech was grandiose prose and inspiring rhetoric. But what does it mean? It means nothing, but it sounded so good, who wants to cause trouble? We're feelin' good for the first time in a while and that's what matters.
Obama isn't just the inevitable dream candidate. He is the self-object of Oprah Nation, love child of the therapeutic generation. What he brings to the table no one quite knows. But what he delivers to the couch is human Prozac.
He may or may not be the right man to fill the Oval Office, but Americans will feel too good to notice.