I've been around for a while but have never seen anything like the anticipation, the adoration and the fascination of the masses with the looming presidency of Barack Obama. Never. In talking about this phenomenon with others, some make the case that John F. Kennedy evoked a similar passion among his enthusiasts. But memory tells me that really didn't take off until after his assassination. There were shrines to JFK in a lot of American homes - Catholic homes, that is - but they were a result of their hero's martyrdom, not of worshiping him before he was sworn into office.
Some time ago, I referred here to Mr. Obama's seeming status as a messiah among his followers and was taken to task by letter writers and callers to my show, arguing that there was no messianic flavor to their support for the man. Well, OK, but how are we to explain the huge industry that has sprung up peddling Obama inaugural collectibles? Kevin Cowherd wrote a column in this paper about a local entrepreneur who's been making milk chocolate Barack lollipops and Obama in the Box candies ("Barack Obama has never looked so delicious," Jan. 11). He quotes a woman selling them as saying, "We can't make them fast enough." There's flavor for you.
On QVC, the TV shopping channel, the following items are some of what's being offered as Presidential Inaugural Collectibles:
* "24K Gold Plated $2 Presidential Bill" ($18).
* "Set of 3 Presidential Barack Obama Colorized Coin Collection" ($21.75).
* "Commemorative Cover w/3 Stamps and '1/20/09' D.C. Postmark" ($24).
* "Barack Obama Gold Plated Card and Colorized $1 Coin Set" ($19.80).
* "Commemorative Portfolio of Front Newspaper Featuring Obama" ($58.68).
* "2009 Official Barack Obama Inauguration Bronze Medallion" ($54.12).
* "2009 Commemorative Replica Inauguration Ticket" ($29.88).
Googling "Official Obama Memorabilia" got more than 2 million results in 3.9 seconds. Here we are in a deepening economic recession, and there is an apparently bottomless appetite for Obama memorabilia even before the man assumes the mantle of Leader of the Free World. Business for these things is booming. One of the nettlesome problems the new president will have to face is figuring out some way to improve the rest of the economy. On that, he says he's revised his economic plan of tax cuts and vastly increased federal spending - which means a lot more public debt - to create as many as 4.1 million jobs (up from an earlier promise of 3 million). Details on how this is to be accomplished are to be revealed later on. Skeptics abound.
What a mess he is inheriting! Not just the ailing business climate but also the task of managing the American Empire, the cost/benefit ratio of which has been largely reversed. The empire seems to be losing its profitability. Yet, as I have found, to point this out - really, to point out any of the difficulties Mr. Obama is certain to face - is to be seen as criticizing the president-elect.
What worries me is not Barack Obama, but rather the circumstances that he faces - along with all of us. We've entered an era of trillion-dollar-plus deficits. There are plenty of knowledgeable people who warn that the banksters and the politicians have done on an even larger scale what the alleged swindler Bernard L. Madoff is accused of - pulling off a Ponzi scheme that was only exposed when the markets collapsed. The proposed remedies for the economy are all centered on consumers resuming their reckless borrowing. What is good and sane for the individual is poison for the economic climate.
I have asked lots of people: Would you willingly incur more debt today? No. Would they borrow more on their credit cards? No. Would they borrow to expand a business now? No. Yet, without the willingness of the American consumer to resume borrowing and spending, the world economy will remain moribund.
What amazes me is the extent of the faith that the next president will be able to perform miracles, which are pretty much what he'll need to do to minimize the unpleasantness ahead.
Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column appears Wednesdays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.