Obama as Superman

I expect more of Fareed Zakaria and Newsweek. It's bad enough that, in this week's absurd magazine feature about the 50 most powerful people in the world, the normally level-headed Zakaria implies that Barack Obama is "intensely charismatic" which supposedly set him apart from ordinary people and endows him with supernatural or superhuman qualities. But then Zakaria, who self-evidently has been overdosing on Superman comics, makes the truly ludicrous assertion that Obama's political fate rests on him saving capitalism:

For Obama to be remembered as a great president, he has to do nothing less than rescue capitalism.

Nothing is further from the truth. It's not global capitalism (whatever that means) that needs rescuing, but America itself. For Obama to be a great president, a true Superman, he needs to risk unpopularity by telling Americans unpleasant truths about itself. He needs to raise taxes on gas, restore pride in public service, fundamentally restructure Wall St and Detroit without catering to the mob that is baying for the blood of the elite, most of all he needs to restore the balance between rights and responsibilities in American democracy.

It's hardly surprising that this week's Newsweek ranks Obama as the most powerful person in the world. But as the magazine's Jon Meacham observes:

Power in America and elsewhere is undergoing directional changes.... Yes, there are still culturalarbiters, and yes, presidents and lawmakers and executives obviously exert enormous influence. It is arguable, though, that technology has given us a more democratic culture (if not politics) than the world has seen since perhaps the founding of Athenian democracy. In ways that we are still only beginning to understand, the Internet is changing how power is accumulated and exercised.

If Meacham is right and we do indeed have a more democratic culture since ancient Athens, then how does the election of Zakaria's supernatural and superhuman Obama square with the democratizing impact of technology on politics? Perhaps Obama will discover the electronic plebiscite -- the classic tool of charismatics seeking to rule in the name of people. And maybe Obama's plebiscitory democracy will, in the first 100 days of his administration, save not only global capitalism and the global ecosystem, but also solve world hunger and disease.

The brainy brand

And so the Obama post-election brand is now becoming clearer. As the impressed David Brooks notes, it's the brainy brand -- the senior Obama administration being made up, for the most part, of Harvard and Yale Law School graduates and Ivy League PhDs:

This truly will be an administration that looks like America, or atleast that slice of America that got double 800s on their SATs. Even more than past administrations, this will be a valedictocracy — rule by those who graduate first in their high school classes. If a foreign enemy attacks the United States during the Harvard-Yale game any time over the next four years, we’re screwed.

As the author of an outrageously elitist booky-wooky which assaults our democratic cult of mass ignorance, I'm unabashedly thrilled by Obama's respect for the achievement of America's meritocratic intellectual aristocracy. His will be a truly anti-Palinesque presidency and, while it's not entirely clear whether he'll rule from the right or the left, what is clear is that the Harvard Law School graduate will rule from above rather than from below. But this does create a problem. That's because his pre-election brand was as much focused on YOU as on Obama himself. As Oxford University's Paul Temporal argues about the brilliantly successful pre-election Obama brand:

Obama reached out to all his target audiences with a single powerful message embracing vision, values and competitive positioning: "Yes we can! And yes you can!" In addition, his brand communications strategy cleverly exploited the fact that no consumer can resist an approach that talks about them and helps them feel they are in control. Obama would say things like "This election is not about me – it’s about you" and ‘I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington......I’m asking you to believe in yours."

But, of course, Obama isn't a brand like a soap powder or a fizzy drink that exists simply to be bought, consumed and then forgotten until our next trip to the supermarket.  His pre-election brand have all been about making the voter as if they were in control. But now, with Geithner at Treasury, Summers at the White House, the Hillary show rolling into State and the rest of his Harvard-Yale dream team taking up their positions, Obama's post-election rule-from-above brand doesn't quite gel with the pre-election rule-from-below brand. So there needs to be a recalibration of the message. To rule effectively from above, Obama must explain that politics is a profession rather than a moral calling and that he's assembled the intellectually best and the brightest amongst us to fix America. In contrast with the plebeian populism of the Joe-the-Plumber crowd, Barack the President needs not only to rebuild America's infrastructure but also to rebuild the value of the skilled policy-maker as the heart and soul of the political process.