Obama engages voters as hero, not cult leader

Like a jilted lover, staff columnist for the News Daniel Nichanian ’08 chastises Obama in his recent column (“Cult-like chant does not translate into change” (2/18)) for spurning “real change” in favor of inspirational rhetoric. Of course nowhere in his column does he define what real change is, but no matter. Like countless pundits before him, Nichanian is adapt at talking out of both sides of his mouth. (Perhaps he is the one who should be running for office?)

Quoting Paul Krugman, the author labels the Obama movement a “cult of personality,” comparing Obama to John F. Kennedy and other politicians “for whom seducing a crowd is first and foremost designed to get [them] elected.” Nichanian appears to have passed Political Science 101 because he is right: In order to enact change, politicians must first run for office. Despite that kernel of truth the author misses the larger point, that inspiration or hope does not necessarily equate with cults.

Nichanian seems to prefer a candidate who, like Obama, has detailed plans on health care, ending the war on Iraq and stabilizing the economy, but who lacks Sen. Obama’s “cultish” ability to inspire. I am sure Sen. Clinton appreciates his vote. Politicians, Nichanian intones, are not meant to inspire. And perhaps that is only a natural reaction, since for so many years they have not.

“Just imagine,” the author writes, “how uncomfortable we would get if Bush’s speeches inspired people to tears.” It is impossible to imagine, because Bush has governed from his ideological perch on the far right, attacking Democrats and Republicans alike who differed from his own radical view.

Obama, though certainly a liberal, believes in reaching across the aisle, in moving beyond the partisan debates that, in his view, stem back to the 1960s. The Senator has tapped into a zeitgeist for change, a thirst for something different, but does that make him a cult leader? Are his supporters ready to drink the Kool-Aide of this 21st century Jim Jones? No, of course not. And yet, by using the inflammatory language of cults, that is the impression the author leaves in one’s mind.

Nichanian compares Sen. Obama to President Kennedy. Both were young, idealistic politicians, running on a platform of change: Kennedy’s the New Frontier, Obama’s Change We Can Believe In. Yet perhaps their greatest similarity is their ability to inspire and engage an otherwise apathetic generation.

Kennedy’s call to government service brought thousands of young men and woman into the Peace Corps while Obama’s campaign continues to see unprecedented youth voter turnout and support. Is calling for an age of post-partisanship a bit hokey? Too idealistic? Perhaps. It certainly hasn’t connected with as many working-class voters. (Or so it seems safe to say with Nichanian.) But calling these ideas cultish is outlandish and offensive; what pundits like Nichanian don’t realize (or chose to ignore) is that, for many people, Obama represents what they have always wanted in a leader: He is smart, articulate, principled and, yes, even inspirational, getting people involved who for so long have been turned off by politics. That makes him a hero, not a cult leader.

David Hamstra is a sophomore in Davenport College.


  • partisan

    Doesn't the idea of post-partisanship necessarily imply that there is only one party, or perhaps that there is no longer a state? It's always nice to hope that there will be no arguments because everyone already agrees with you. Of course, given their history of support for radical movements and oppressive forms of government as a means to achieve their ends, the far left has always been drawn to this idea. However, partisanship is just another word for debate over policy, structured according to political parties that develop comprehensive policy platforms. The fact that Obama wants to rhetorically roll over people and get them to forget all disagreements is not a form of rational debate, or of responsible politics. Instead, it is the sort of pandering that can win an election but undermine dispassionate thinking on policy issues.

  • Anonymous

    So…essentially this article says that Obama's ability to inspire isn't cult-like and then it repeats that a lot. Can someone please explain how Obama goes beyond partisanship other than through rhetoric?

  • Anonymous

    how else does the second commentator imagine that bi-partisanship is achieved, if not through rhetoric? how else is diplomacy?

    to the first commentator, those who agree with obama are not bowled over by his charisma or any other such innate faculties. he has not won you over, correct? i would then say its fair to assume that those who support him are those who haver an interest or predisposition to. its rather simplistic to presume that people can be seduce by a few pretty words. as you yourself have exampled, that is not the case.

  • Anonymous

    while there are some points with which i agree in this article, its rather strong to call obama a "hero". he's a good candidate for the democratic national nominee, one might say. "hero" participates in the same idolatry which would substantiate the claims that Nichanian makes.

  • Anonymous

    I was sitting with some friends watching the speeches on Super Tuesday and, when Obama spoke, I was astonished by two facts. First, the eloquence of his rhetoric and what was truly an inspirational speech. However, after this immediate layer of shine wore off, I was shocked with the complete lack of substance. I heard “change” over and over again, but change for what? It was baffling! I kept waiting for something more: substance of ANY sort, anything other than pretty words. What I saw was all form and no substance.

    I also agree with the author of comment 4. Where I come from, heroes generally have to do something before they can be canonized.

  • Anonymous

    "how else does the second commentator imagine that bi-partisanship is achieved, if not through rhetoric?"

    That comment is idiotic. How about through his past and current actions? The comment wasn't that rhetoric is useless, but that rhetoric alone isn't enough.

  • Anonymous

    David Hamstra is the one nursing a lover's attachment to Obama. He attacks Nichanian as a person, rather than showing any substantial flaws in his argument. Hamstra, indeed, seems far more enamored of personality than real issues. I doubt his defense of Obama would be so personal and emotional if he too were not caught up in the sort of exuberance created by youth and youtube videos. I think most of us are right to be suspicious of a leader who spouts "change" without really defining it. Enthusiasm in politics is great--I just hate seeing it used in such a calculated way to gain political office. The cult of Obama does not center around a single issue but around a single man, and that is what makes me uncomfortable about obsessions like Hamstra's.

  • to the 6th commentator

    thank you for calling my comment idiotic and then acknowleding it.