Telegraph – William Lowther in Washington – February 23, 2008
For many it is simply a sign of his charisma. But for a growing number of Barack Obama sceptics, there is something disturbing about the adulation with which the senator and Democratic presidential frontrunner is greeted as he campaigns for the White House – unnervingly akin to the hysteria of a cult, or the fervour of a religious revival.
Thousands wait in line to see him wherever he stops. Members of the audience have taken to rushing the stage during campaign rallies, forcing the public-address announcer to plead with them to back off.
A brilliant speaker, Mr Obama often uses the rhetorical trick of rapidly repeating words and slogans and using catchy phrases that tend to attract young Americans, while having very little substance.
Favourites include the call: “We are the hope of the future. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
Dr Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian and stern critic of the current administration of George W.Bush, said: “What’s troubling about the campaign is that it’s gone beyond hope and change to redemption.”
When Oprah Winfrey endorsed Mr Obama in Iowa last month she proclaimed: “I believe he is The One.”
At the campaign’s “Camp Obama” – a training programme run ahead of primaries in key states – volunteers are schooled to avoid talking to voters about policy, and instead tell of how they “came” to Obama, just as born-again Christians talk about “coming to Jesus.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: “Obama’s people are so taken with their messiah that soon they’ll be selling flowers at airports and arranging mass weddings.”
Obama fever has also broken out on the internet – and a rash of new sites has opened, poking gentle fun at the senator’s over-the-top campaign.
One shows him dressed as a pharaoh, another as a sumo wrestler and a third as a Navajo Indian, complete with blue-and-white feathered headdress.
A site called “Is Barack Obama the Messiah?” has a doctored photo of Obama standing on a flight of stairs, Christlike, above an adoring crowd while a ray of light beams from above.
Millions of people have watched a “Yes We Can” video on the internet’s YouTube website, in which celebrities including Scarlett Johansson and the Black Eyed Peas sing the words to an Obama speech in what Mr Brooks describes as “escalating states of righteousness and ecstacy.”
He added: “If that video doesn’t creep out normal working-class voters, then nothing will.”
In Mr Obama’s defence, Robert Caro, historian and biographer of President Lyndon Johnson, said: “Today, attacks on the cult of personality seem really to mean attacks on the ability to make speeches that inspire.
“But you only have to look at crucial moments in the history of our time to see how crucial it was to have a leader who could inspire, who could rally a nation to a standard, who could infuse a country with confidence, to remind people of the justice of a cause.”
Others suggest that the Mr Obama’s opponents are behind the charge that he is encouraging a cult of personality, being otherwise unable to explain how a first-term senator has managed to dazzle his way to the top.
Some blame Hillary Clinton’s campaign – desperate to slow Mr Obama’s momentum – for trying to skewer her opponent with the cult label.
And in a tart dig at Mr Obama, the near-certain Republican presidential candidate John McCain said last week: “I do not seek the presidency on the presumption that I am blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save my country in its hour of need.”
Mr Obama later told a crowd that he would “take it down a notch.”
But for now the fervour his campaign has generated has been working. He has won the last 10 state caucus and primary elections and as a result has a growing lead in the delegates who will choose the Democratic candidate at the party’s convention in August.
On the most recent count by the authoritative website, Real Clear Politics, Mr Obama has won 1,185 delegates to Mrs Clinton’s 1,024, with each needing 2,025 needed to win the nomination.
The next major test will come on March 4 with the Texas and Ohio primaries, in which a total of 334 delegates are at stake.
Mrs Clinton’s closest advisers have readily admitted that in order to remain a viable candidate she must win both of these elections.
A month ago she was leading in each state by about 20 points, but this weekend Mr Obama drew almost even with her in Texas and had more than halved her lead in in Ohio.
And when Mr Obama eventually takes the platform to rhythmic chants of his mantra-like slogan, “Yes we can, yes we can!” fans swoon with euphoria.
Now critics are quietly voicing the fear that Mr Obama and his campaign have deliberately adopted the tone and tactics of an evangelical preacher, whipping up “Obamamania” at the expense of more serious discussion of policy and government.
There is “something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism” deployed by the black senator and his supporters, observed Joe Klein, the veteran political commentator the first to latch on to the political potency of Bill Clinton, then an obscure Arkansas governor, early in the 1992 White House campaign.
“The message is becoming dangerously self-referential,” he wrote in Time magazine. “The Obama campaign all too often is about how wonderful the Obama campaign is.”
At no fewer than six of Mr Obama’s recent rallies, young enthusiasts have been so overcome with excitement that they have fainted in front of the stage.
Indeed, fainting has become so common that a team of medical volunteers is ordered to be on hand to treat the victims, and Mr Obama has interrupted his own speeches to give his followers a blow by blow commentary of their recovery.
A senior Obama official, who would talk only on condition of anonymity, told The Sunday Telegraph that the campaign was worried that the cult charges would stick and harm their candidate.
He acknowledged that Mr Obama generated wild enthusiasm and devotion among young fans – most of them voting for the first time – but insisted this was due to the senator’s “charisma and the political inspiration that informs his speeches.”