Popularity Breeds Contempt

First lady Michelle Obama, listens to her husband, U.S. President Barack Obama, speak at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, February 5, 2009. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES)New York Times writer Judith Warner gets into the psychology of those who have both healthy, unhealthy and borderline devastating emotional attachments to the First Couple — even though we don’t really know them at all.

One woman wrote that when she couldn’t get to sleep at night, she “lay in bed and thought about the Obama girls in their rooms at the White House. I thought about Marian Robinson up on the third floor. And about Barack and Michelle, a couple who clearly have a ‘thing’ for each other, spooning together in bed. It helped me relax.”

I understood perfectly where these cozy dreams of easy familiarity came from. It was that sense so many people share of having a very immediate connection to Barack Obama, whether they’re black or biracial, or children of single parents or self-made strivers; or they’re lawyers or community organizers or Ivy League graduates or smokers or basketball players or Blackberry users or parents or married or Democrats. A lot of people share the fantasy that having the Obamas over for “dinner and a game of Scrabble,” as one daydreamer put it to me, is something that really could just about happen.

“This is the first president I’ve known who looks, talks and acts like a peer,” is how one Washington man explained it to me. “Notwithstanding his somewhat exotic life story, I feel like I understand what he’s like and where he’s coming from. And despite his incredible achievements, he still seems like a lot of people I know. If you stopped the clock in 2004, in fact, or maybe a couple of years earlier, he’d feel roughly like a peer in terms of accomplishments, too. Of course I know nobody with his political gifts, speaking skills and confidence, and he’s also a gifted writer and thinker. But I feel like one or two different turns for Obama or me and he could have been someone my friends and I wouldn’t think it extraordinary to have in our circle.”

The article got into everything from the droves of women mired in sexual fantasy, folks overly invested in the Obama marriage, kids who dream of playdates with Sasha and Malia to former Ivy-Leaguers doing their best Brando, crying, “I could-a been-a contenda!”

These are people for whom the Obamas are not just a beacon of hope, inspiration and “demigodlikeness,” as a New York lawyer put it, but also a kind of mirror. And the refracted image of self they see is not one they much admire.

“I keep thinking about how I squandered my education and youth,” the New York lawyer wrote to me. “I went off to college from high school being completely community-minded, doing a lot of volunteer work for the homeless and for hunger and tutoring poor kids. Then I got to college and forgot my ideals. Barack was my year at Columbia. Why wasn’t I hanging out with him and being serious and following my ideals instead of hanging out in clubs? Same with law school. I partied my way through instead of taking advantage of all that I could have. Both Obamas were there when I was. I feel like if I’d been a better person I would have gotten to know them.”

A Washington lawyer expressed similar sentiments: “I feel like I know Barack, that I have worked grassroots and have created change in the way that he has. I [also] have feelings of a mom who had possibility but ended up running school auctions and mediating family business matters rather than having the opportunity to be out there on a national level creating change. So when I watch Barack I feel like: I can do that … and what am I doing with my life? Even though he is way smarter and more articulate than me.”

Malia, Sasha and Michelle Obama with actress/singer Keke Palmer at the Kid’s Concert before the Inauguration in January.

And for some, that desire can cause this fantasy of admiration to border on contempt.

For some, not knowing the Obamas has almost turned into a feeling of being snubbed or excluded. Like in middle school. It’s funny. Almost.

“Why won’t my kids be sleeping over at the White House? And as my daughter noted, why couldn’t she get to sit front and center and see the Jonas Brothers and Miley perform at the kids’ inaugural concert? If she went to Sidwell, then she might have these chances, she said …” wrote a mother whose kids are not at Sidwell Friends school with Sasha and Malia.

“Will Michelle stay down to earth? She could prove it by joining our book club,” wrote a Sidwell mom.

As much as people love the Obamas, I often joke (but seriously) with my family that with such high hopes, there is bound to be a gaggle of folks about six months from now running around screaming “the emperor has no clothes” because there was never anyway for the Obamas to live up to the fantasy that exists in the heads of the faithful.

Most of us are rational in our admiration. But we all have that friend, co-worker, relative or neighbor who has become a little too invested in the Obamas. Not quite creepy stalker, but a little delusional, perhaps believing President Obama’s election will truly lead to Martin Luther King’s “Promise Land” and cure all that ailes us. And when the honeymoon ends and their life is still what they made it, they will either be crestfallen, laugh at their naivete or turn on him like a jilted lover.

I like the Obamas. I’m a fan. But my expectations for all presidents always teeter between cautiously optimistic to low, because I’ve watched politics long enough to know how hard it is for any one politician, even the president, to get things done. Success is never guaranteed no matter how brilliant a mind you have. I believe he’ll do well, but I’m not going to be shocked if he makes mistakes along the way. I’d suggest that people enjoy their Obama highs, but brace themselves for when reality conducts an intervention on your fantasy role playing.

Pictures below are from a recent prayer breakfast The Obama’s attended. For more pictures of the Obamas and the Administration’s First 100 Days, check out the Flickr page.

national prayer breakfast4



michelle watches speech3

18 thoughts on “Popularity Breeds Contempt

  1. @ Robert MI said I’m a fan in the post and that you can healthily enjoy watching the Obamas while being rational. I don’t feel like those of us who can tell the difference should censor ourselves because some can’t.The pictures were part of a news event. Didn’t feel like writing two separate posts.I never said there was anything wrong in admiring them or looking at pictures. I was referring to people who develop a fantasy fixation that will inevitably fall apart and leave them devastated.I mean, I don’t know if you noticed, but a good portion of the blog is about covering the Obamas in many different capacities because he’s the president. Pictures are one of those capacities.

  2. Snob, I agree with your post. I found it really scary that right after Obama won people were claiming he was going to damn near cure the planet of all the world problems. I sat and listen to these nuts and thought to my self dear lord they are in for a major let down soon. And sure enough once Obama took office and started making small normal mistakes typical of a new in coming staff. The media and some of his cult followers have began to turn on the man. I’ll be honest I voted for Obama simply to stop Sarah Palin and clueless McCain. I’m sure there is many people who voted for him the same reason I did. Many folks who supported Obama did so as a backlash against Bush and Chaney.The rest his aka cult followers voted for him only because they wanted a messiah. Not me ! I voted with my eyes wide open and knew Obama was only human not god.

  3. It’s all new to everyone. I have to admit with Robert M. You and so many bloggers created this along with the mainstream media and Obama’s engineering team. The country needed and still need more quality substance and nuance and finally Obama is trying to take them there. But I also saw he lead a cult whom all needed a leader. He dumbed it down for them and then sensationalized the idea of movement all of a sudden to get them to a place to take a step. I get that too about him. I know. I know because I have met the same people who are cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs about him and her but not about me or others who have committed ourselves the same way to lead and asked people to get involved. This is the sensation of the celebrity still. People are marveling at the package. They think they are like them because they are but they aren’t. Still that makes you crave them because they seem like regular people that "made good". Really…it’s all packaging and the desire of people to see more than what is really there.Others that I know who are activists have not tried to lead a cult or seduce people into seeing us in a heightened, surreal way because we know what we have to say will not be liked all the time and we will not be glossy all the time and shit happens that will force us to do a Christian Bale on our very friends, family, and supporters. That is the nuance Barack and Michelle brokered to not apply in their chase to win the presidency. They promoted fascination with themselves by not ceasing the cult behaviors.I remember when a young woman was listening to me speak at a college and she started crying. She wanted to hug me and she asked for autographs. Several times similar things happened and it was spooky. I saw that people needed more and wanted me to be their leader in that instance but I knew I would let them down because what they wanted was fantasy. I already knew the war I was fighting and fighting for them did not allow me to be perfect and cookie-cut. I had to step on toes of legends and walking dieties that mainstream Blacks heralded as heroes. I know other activists who too have to shit at legends who are duplicitious but careful to never show the public all their sides. A lot of people know things about people with carefully manicured public images of heroism that are compromised but the public does not really, really, really want to know the truths about all of their heroes. So when we see people that we want to help us start to get it twisted in becoming a fan, we have to nip it in the bud but mostly showing that we are textured and we will be an asshole and crush feeling just to be the cocoa beans to break the sweet smell that hypnotizing. For me and the other female activists I know, we are considered bitches because we don’t try to intoxicate–we try to tell the hard truth without the marketing that we are cool. But when I think of it, the activists I know who are bitchin’ are far less popular than Michelle or Barack and have done more. They just don’t have the titles and gloss. It’s just packaging and the romance that people want.Michelle and Barack created this. They did not brace the people with a pace of realism. I think however that all of this will pass. People are feeling snubbed because they were seduced to think they were that accessible and they are…if they had time, it shows. People just have to realize that there are people just as dynamic as them around but most people only look for the gloss to see that people are special. It is absolutely unhealthy how people project upon them and have now consecrated the notion that they are the only two people who have given their lives to service in merit. It insults me. It infuriating to others that I know who have tried to innovate but is not received because they are not as packaged as them. We need more nuaced understanding about development and be afforded transparencies of what really goes on in life. I’m taking with me some gratitude of the Obamas in the case to make some start to realize they were squandering their lives but I hope that some realize that they snubbed a lot of us who are not The Obamas. That lawyer that wants to see himself through them did not realize there were and still are others that needed him or her assistance before this "Change/Hope" campaign started. We were doing it "just because" without needing The Obamas to inspire us to be want to be great. We did it while it was thankless and still is and took the hits and still will without his or her support, whom we needed. The fascination with them as the First Family is to be expected. This reminds me of The Clinton Era in a way. It was magnitized. It’s just to Whites they are the Exceptional "magical" Negroes they want to touch and own. And for Blacks, they are too the Exceptional "magical" Negroes they want to touch and own.

  4. Upon reading that article, and the comments under it… Miss Kate forsees Token Friending of Exceptional Negroes to SKYROCKET in the next couple of years. *sigh*

  5. I am so glad that you pointed out how people are so overly involved in their marriage. That is the part about this whole "monster" that I do not particularly care. He is my President…nothing more…nothing less. Sure it seems like a glamorous life. However, those that clamor to be close to the President, his family, and his inner and outer circle must realize the huge sacrifices that must be made. To imagine, even for a nano-second what that entails, is enough for me to be glad that I am very distanced from the President. I wouldn’t want no part of the Administration (or even to be in Washington, DC) at this point in time. I say that not maliciously. Rather, I don’t care to be a part of the circus.

  6. First What is that helmet hair action going on with Michelle in that picture??? I don’t know about all ya’ll but it would be a travesty for Michelle’s hair to fall into the same trap all the First Ladies stylists gravitate towards. I want to start a campaign "No Big Pageant Style Helmet Hair For Michelle O" It’s different people want to know more about the Obama’s because they don’t fit the mode, so for the first year of his presidency I’m sure we will be following their every step. People are naturally curious especially when its the unknown, and millions of the ones over fascinated are those who probably know just one black person. Just like any other new interesting news put before us daily the Obama’s marriage will soon make it’s way to the bottom of the news and we will start focusing more on his term as President. I’m excited to see what his presidency will bring so I will remain interested in what President Obama does, as for Michelle and the kids I hope they try to live as normally as possible in a small little circle.

  7. 1. The Obamas are inspiring but …2. The world has gone slightly mad here.3. The whole thing is creeping me out!!!4. Human nature = most of us realise that things are awfully wrong in our world and fed on the mythology of Gods, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, Fairy Godmother etc. we are programmed to look for a magical being who will save us from ourselves. We then get all fanatical until we notice their clay feet and crucify them.5. It’s so hard to focus on one’s own life and take responsibility for one’s self. Much easier to make someone else responsible so one can blame them when things go wrong.

  8. I’m really hoping that people are spending this much time fantasizing about the Obamas because so many people are out of jobs and they just don’t have anything else to do. I think people probably fantasize more when they’re as depressed and low as most of the country is right now. Hopefully, people will stop when things get better. But still, some of those stories were just creepy.

  9. SnobI do know that pictures are part of your medium of expression. I want President Obama to succeed. I just see the medium of pictures (you do not have to extend your imagination)contributing to the unwelcome feelings/attitudes etc. I don’t know how you keep the unwelcome part in check. Those feelings(?) will lead to even more irrational actions when the inevitable disappointment comes.On a personal basis I’m more concerned about the Obama’s children(do not be creeped out about the way I refer to them.) I just want people to leave thema alone period. The WH is isolating enough for adults; for children it must be a nightmare. Given the sex of the children the sexualization of them regardless of age is an even bigger concern.

  10. @ Robert MNo. I totally understand your concerns. But I honestly think because of who Barack is, what his presidency means, what he symbolizes there was little anyone could do to keep folks from going off the deep end over him. People are always looking for things to fill their lives, to give them purpose. For some people, believing, unwaveringly, in the president fills that hole. For others its religion or drugs. People want to believe in something bigger than themselves. I think there was little anyone could do to stop the inevitable. The Obamas are this perfect media storm of history, biography, mythology and wish fulfillment. It’s seductive for people.For me, I don’t know if it was my parents’ pragmatism or my ability to see all sides or the fact that I tend to be selective in what I take seriously. I enjoy looking at pictures of the Obamas and reading about them. But I draw the line at what I find dull or minutia. I’m fascinated by history and politicians and politics and human psychology. So there is a high level of detachment between me and my reporting, between what I enjoy about the Obamas and the actual politics of the matter. I’ve always been this way, for good and for worse, and both my parents and sisters are the same way.Like, we were all happy for Obamas election and voted for him, but we didn’t feel the same level of catharsis or joy that others felt. It wasn’t that we weren’t happy, but … I mean, I’ve been following politics since I was about 10 or 11. You sort of develop this numbness to it and separate the serious from the silly. That’s why I can laugh at a lot of this shit, even if it’s horribly depressing or bizarre or offensive. I mean, these people were going to have these issues whether this blog or any blog existed or not. The Obama Phenomenon is a sort of, once in a lifetime, synergistic experience that has touched people in mysterious (and not so mysterious) ways.I mean, why do women write love letters to Scott Peterson? Or have nonsensical attractions to Lil Wayne? Or those older ladies who thought Rumsfeld was hot back in 2003? Or the hardcore Bushies who never saw any fault in the 43rd president no matter what he did? I mean, people do this. It is a cult of celebrity, a cult of personality, but it happens with all dynamic characters. Some people, when they realize they have this power, use it for good. Others use it for financial gain. Some become CEOs or gurus or ministers or politicians. The worst of the worst become charlatans and cult leaders, a la Jim Jones.Barack has chosen the political path. But I don’t think he could do anything to stop this. The mythology was already written for him before he even stepped into the role. I could take a more serious route with the coverage, but then, that wouldn’t be my blog. I get serious sometimes, but I’m largely a satirist moonlighting as a political commentator. I just hope people are able to keep the two separate. But I can’t change my behavior because some folks keep having freaky, deeky sex dreams about the president.I can mock them. And that is what I choose to do.

  11. You have to be careful in mocking people. It is rare that they come to this conclusion when they realized they are being mocked:"Neon lights a Nobel PrizeA leader speaks, that leader diesYou don’t have to follow meOnly you can set you free"

  12. I find this whole thing silly. I find it silly that people go overboard about the Obamas, and I find it silly that people laugh, point, and shake their heads about people going overboard. While Obama may be unique because of this particular moment in history, and in part because of who he is, we have seen this before, this is nothing new. Yet, people continue to pass around this "cult" of Obama, and how people view him as the "messiah" like its an idea that just fell out of the sky. Think of how many older Americans love/loved the Kennedys and how it might still be considered blasephemy in some parts to speak bad about them. Look at how the Republicans STILL obsess over trying to out-Reagan each other and carry on his legacy—not to mention how people revere Abe Lincoln and MLK. Again, this type of lionization is not new, this need to feel connected with a charismatic leader is not new. And I find it interesting that people mock and scorn others for doing it. Over the top? Absolutely. Unheard of? Hardly. I also find it interesting Andrea’s comments that "Michelle and Barack created this. They did not brace the people with a pace of realism." The Obamas may be imperfect, but I have to disagree with this statement wholeheartedly. I listened to many of both Michelle’s and Barack’s speeches in the primaries and the general –and they constantly talked about how Obama was just a man, that he couldn’t do it alone, that he would make mistakes, but that he would try his best. People hear what they want to hear, but to say that the Obamas did not brace people with a pace of realism is simply false. They tried to portray their relationship as realistically as they could, they also tried to characterize their goals as realistically as they could — people latched on to them. To now criticize them because many weren’t paying attention is unfair.

  13. I consider President Obama and Michelle as a reminder that you can acheive anything you want as long as you want it bad enough. It just so happens that they are African American and come from the South Side of Chicago (where I am from). I also love the fact that for at least a minimum of four years the rest of America and the rest of the World will see an average middle class black family and not the carricatures that have been on TV. As they are several years older than me I am not deluded into thinking that I would hang out with them or any childern I would have be their playmates. But it is comforting to see President Obama and Michelle on TV everyday because they remind me of my friends and family. Their mannerisms, sayings and their laidbackness (is that a word? I guess I just pulled a George W. Bush) are familiar I can see them at my Aunts house for a Barbeque or Thanksgiving Dinner hanging out, relaxed, laughing and maybe getting a little loud. That is what I like the most, because it means there is someone in the White House who gets how regular people live. How we juggle things, how sometimes the would be achievable seems unachievable. That we all do not have a family trust to cushion our fall to make it easier to get back up and start all over again. I guess this is what Clinton represented to a lot of people back in the 90’s because he understood what it takes to make it when you do not have a lot.Also it is heartening since I just started my business that when the Obama’s were my age, they were still in debt from school and living in a condo in Hyde Park just trying to figure out how to pay the mortage next month.

  14. i was watching CNN on inauguration night…and they had various interviews from the numerous balls and i recall Courtney Cox and David Arquette being interviewed about their thoughts on the historic moment. and i think it was Larry King who asked Cox what she thinks the significance of an Obama presidency is and she said something about living comfortably with the knowledge that her daughter will grow up in a world where everyone is equal and the environment is no longer threatened. and i just thought ‘damn. poor Obama.’ that’s a whole hell of a lot of expectation placed on the shoulders of one man. and i’m sure many feel the same.it’s one thing to have faith. it’s quite another to be led by blind faith. it’s the latter that will inevitably result backlash when anything goes wrong, or not according to plan.

  15. my guess is that a lot of the over-the-top reaction to the obamas has to do with the sharp difference between our new president and the last one.how many people could actually relate to any of the bushes? laura stepford? jenna and not-jenna? babs and poppy? the decider-in-chief? are you kidding? i think most people understand obama’s not a miracle worker, but there is so much that needs doing urgently, so many wrongs to right, this country has suffered for so long under the oppressive weight of the bush years, the obamas in the white house is like june busting out in the dead of winter. the shock of the change alone could account for the extremity of people’s reaction.

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