The Savior Trap

“Lookin’ for a leader
To bring our country home
Re-unite the red white and blue
Before it turns to stone
Lookin’ for somebody
Young enough to take it on
Clean up the corruption
And make the country strong”

— Neil Young, “Looking for a Leader”

On the day Barack Obama was sworn in as president, the USA Today/Gallup Poll released a poll that found that nearly three of four Americans believed that the nation would be better off in four years — at the end of the president’s first term in office.

His approval rating was in the mid-60s, while Americans were giving him high marks on everything from how they expected him to deal with the economy to his foreign policy chops. As Lydia Saad of Gallup wrote about the January 2009 poll, the results show “that Americans are investing an extraordinary degree of hope in his coming leadership.”

Now, 18 months later, the president approval rating has come down to earth, weighed down by the realities of our intractable problems, broken political system and his own failings.

Obama’s fall, however, says more about us as a hero-worshipping culture than it does about him.

As I’ve written on more than one occasion, the centrist conciliator that Obama has shown himself to be was always there. Anyone who read his book, The Audacity of Hope, and its conflation of political philosophy and principle with partisanship and its elevation of bipartisanism to an almost sacred status could have predicted much of the failures that were to come.

That many of us were surprised, however, shows how much we have ceded our own authority as citizens and given into what I’ll call the savior complex.

Several years ago, Neil Young issued a solid, if overrated, musical polemic called Living with War directed against the Bush White House and its ideology of endless war. The disc worked, for the most part; it was full of piss and vinegar, as the saying goes, but lacked the kind of poetry that has made his best work remain timely and relevant.

Living with War was a typical protest record, similar in many ways to classic protest music like “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire or much of the Country Joe and the Fish catalogue. One song on the record, however, stood out for me as an example of how deeply we have internalized the savior complex and given away our capacity to control our own political destiny. “Looking for a Leader,” with its bald desire to have someone rise up and save us, some kind of political Christ figure who could lead us to a new promised land (or, given that this is Neil Young, back into the mythical American past), encapsulates our tendency to demand action at the same time that we are paralyzed by our leader worship, by the idea that all it will take is the right man or woman in the White House (or State House or mayor’s house) to make things right and restore America’s lost prestige and power.

It is a dangerous mindset that is repeating itself in Afghanistan, where Gen. David Petraeus has now taken over from another mythologized general, Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal was fired as the top commander in Afghanistan after a Rolling Stone article made explicit his dismissive attitude toward the nation’s civilian leadership.

McChrystal had enjoyed a somewhat fawning relationship to the rest of the Washington foreign policy establishment, which was all too willing to ignore his role in the military torture scandal and the Pat Tillman cover-up.

But fawning does not begin to describe the way Washington views Petraeus — who was confirmed 99-0 — as infallible. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) called him “our best hope” and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that “there is no one more qualified or more outstanding a leader than Gen. Petraeus to achieve successful conclusion of the Afghan conflict.” (Both quotations are from

The elevation of a general like Petraeus gives him far too much power, far too much authority to hijack Afghanistan policy — as the debate over the Obama withdrawal date indicates. Republicans have been trying to get Petraeus to call the pull-out date ill-conceived, to box-in the president and force him to follow the generals rather than the other way around.

The problem, as I said, is that we have invested our leaders with too much authority, too much prestige, with an almost royal sense of power. We have lost sight of our own authority, especially in regards to war.

We need to take it back.

Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor in New Jersey. E-mail; blog,

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2010

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