Thursday, October 22, 2009


One year ago, the country and the world were caught up in Barack Obama’s ideas envisioned through words like “hope” and “change.” Today, we are focused instead on President Obama the man.

And Obama the man is everywhere. In fact, no other president has traveled the world as much as he has in the given amount of time he’s been in office.

At the same time, and while many factors are at play — from the ongoing health care debate, to controversy surrounding his Nobel Peace Prize — the president’s approval ratings have fallen with Rasmussen’s Presidential Tracking Poll, showing only 32 percent of the nation’s voters strongly approve of the way he is performing and 40 percent strongly disapprove, giving a Presidential Approval Index rating of minus-8.

Like Icarus’ wings, much of Obama’s magic has melted away. Granted, it is natural for a president to come down to earth after being elected and he has remained aloft longer than many. However, while the campaign used ambitious, metaphysical language to describe their forward thinking outlook, there are no single words today that capture the imagination. Where is the “hope” ? Where is the “change”?

In our celebrity culture, Obama the man has overtaken and eclipsed any message. In a world of celebrities, he’s commoditized as just another celebrity. He is an American idol.

To counter that, he again needs to link his cause beyond himself and to ideas that can be captured in a word.

Because while his oratory skills can soar, they need the language of ideas to carry the people. Within the language of health care for example, are terms like “public option” and “single payer.” Where is the aspiration in lingo like that?

He should borrow a page from Judaism. It does not rely on any one individual. God is not nailed to anything. He is abstract. The Hebrew Bible is adamant that God has no shape or form, so no idol can ever capture God’s essence. The Torah’s essence and its power are unleashed in language and words.

In Deuteronomy’s final chapter, just read on Simchat Torah, when our hero Moses dies we are not told where he’s buried,to avoid turning his place of death into a shrine.

I am afraid that with Obama’s move to shrine-filled Washington, he has taken on the iconic stature of one of the many idols that fill its streets and avenues.

So here’s an iconoclastic notion that could have worked better, and like a lot of winning ideas is really quite simple. In fact, it’s a word that Jews wear around their necks … Chai.

While health care legislation is an enormously complicated issue, it has gotten so weighted-down, laden in Beltway-speak and tangled up in the cavernous halls of Congress, that it would take Robert Langdon from Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” to unravel its mysteries.

Had he launched his health care effort like he did his campaign, not calling it “health care,” but LIFE, he would have been able to take hold of the high ground and keep it.

Just as change had been the word emblazoned on the front of every podium last year, imagine if at every whistle stop LIFE had been the keyword the public saw?

While giving support to a more preventive approach to health care, it also would have provided an aspirational idea that could have fueled the long hard slog through both houses of Congress. Not many politicians have the ability to magically wield such an encompassing word and own it like Obama can.

But given the downward projection he’s heading into as 2010 approaches, his wings are being weighed down by the man, when all they really have to carry is a message.

Abe Novick writes monthly for the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES on the intersection of American and Jewish culture. His work is at abenovick.com .