Messianic Hopes, Anger, Fantasy, Fear, and Disappointment in Obama's Presidency

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The 44th U.S. President was elected in November 2008 with an unusually ambitious agenda for change, amidst high hopes and the daunting problems of a deep recession and two wars. He planned, among other things, in a post-partisan manner to transform American foreign policy, health care, taxation, education, and environmental practices, while rebuilding crumbling U.S. infrastructure and funding Social Security.1 In a time of fiscal crisis and deep economic recession, vast spending to stimulate the economy while revenues decline has limited governmental power to pay for these changes.2 Nevertheless, in his first year, the President was able to rapidly advance his agenda, until in 2010 extremely difficult problems - rather than the goals and accomplishments of the administration - have dominated the thinking of the American public.

Hopeful Norwegian members of the Nobel Committee selected Barack Obama as the recipient of their 2009 Peace Prize. They acknowledged that the award was more for his promise of peace than his actual accomplishments. Like the Americans who had voted for him the year before, they expected great things. They declared that the award was "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples" and for "Obama's vision." In justifying their selection of a yet unproven president they harkened back to a period when "America's ideals were the world's ideals." They declared that "Obama's ideals coincide to a large extent with the ideals" of "the Norwegian Nobel Committee throughout our 108-year history" of strengthening international institutions, advancing human rights and democracy, furthering arms reduction, promoting dialogue and diplomacy, and raising awareness of climate change.3

Millions of Americans expected great things of Obama, partly because of a psychological mechanism that Freud called "the narcissism of minor differences." That is the inclination to project great hopes or fears on some group or someone based upon relatively minor differences, exaggerating those differences. In the case of Obama, it is that he is a multiracial man from Hawaii with an African father and name. Exaggerated expectations are what led psychohistorian David Beisel, in the period immediately after the 2008 election and before the President was sworn into office, to write his article "Presidential Savior Fantasies and the Election of Barack Obama," in which he spelled out the messianic hopes the American people had projected onto their first multiracial president.4 These unrealistic expectations were heightened by the disinclination of the media to laugh at candidate Obama for fear of being accused of racism, or because those personally involved had so many of their own hopes pinned on him. The downside of this idealization is the disappointment and denigration following from the inevitable letdown when the reality becomes apparent: no matter what the President does he will disappoint those looking for a savior, since he is only one man in a system that breeds frustration. At this point I am not privy to any dissolution of the messianic hopes held by the Nobel Committee. However, they did include in their reasons for granting the Peace Prize to Obama that he was working to shut down the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, which currently remains open, within a year of assuming office. Certainly many who voted for the 44th President are quite disappointed that this jail, associated around the world with torture, still holds prisoners.


Barack Hussein Obama is friendly, intelligent, observant, a good listener, and extremely confident. This confidence was illustrated by his interview with his future campaign manager in 2003 when he declared, "I could probably do every job on the campaign better than the people I hire to do it. …