At least one segment of the economy is booming: the market in Obama kitsch. The dedicated supporter of the incoming President need not content himself with a T shirt or bumper sticker. Also available are Obama coasters, lava lamps, jigsaw puzzles, mugs, skateboards, toy trains, CDs, DVDs and, of course, commemorative dinner plates. Ben & Jerry's is introducing a Yes Pecan flavor in honor of Obama's campaign slogan, and Marvel Comics is running a special Inaugural issue of Spider-Man. Pepsi has created the Pepsi Optimism Project with a red, white and blue logo almost identical to Obama's sunrise button. And Obama's face now graces subway tickets sold in the nation's capital.
Officials in Washington expect record crowds for Jan. 20 record lines at the Porta-Potty too and closing time at several hundred local bars and watering holes has been extended practically into the breakfast hour for celebrators' convenience. (Tourism is getting a boost outside D.C. too: in Honolulu, a $40 bus ride will take you to see where Obama scooped ice cream as a teen.) We have an economic stimulus plan, and his name is Barack Obama. (See pictures of Obama on Flickr.)
Conservatives harrumph at all this adulation. Before declaring his greatness, we insist that we should wait for him to accomplish something for the country. (Spike Lee didn't even wait for the election. Last summer he said we were soon going to measure time by "BB, before Barack, and AB, after Barack.") In some of his supporters, we see the spectacle of secular-minded folk looking for a messiah. But we risk looking like spoilsports or sore losers, and we can sympathize with the excitement over the first nonwhite President, even if we would have preferred that someone else had played the role.
There is no recent analogue to the madness er, hopefulness that has seized Obama's fans. Some journalists have been comparing him with F.D.R. and even Lincoln. To find a similar episode of enthusiasm for an incoming President, you might have to go back to 1829. The outgoing President, John Quincy Adams, was the son of another President. He had won office in a way his opponents considered corrupt: the 1824 election had been thrown to the House of Representatives, which picked him. The new President, Andrew Jackson, was his era's version of change. Unlike his predecessors, he was not from the founding generation, not related to a founder, not a member of the Virginia dynasty. He embodied the Western future of the country, just as Obama does our multiracial future. An unprecedented number of Americans trekked to see him take the oath of office. His Inaugural was a massive party at the White House, one that got so out of hand that Jackson was forced to lodge elsewhere.
But historical precedent can justify only so much. Going to D.C. to celebrate the election of a President you believe in? That's fine. Hanging around at his hotel just "to be breathing the same air," as one man told the Washington Post? If you can picture a stalker giving the same quote, maybe it's time to think again.
Naming your newborn Barack is, at best, right on the line. Renaming your kids' elementary school after him, as people in Hempstead, N.Y., did? Wait until he's got a presidential library. Wear an Obama shirt, sure, if that's how you feel. Wearing one that says "The only TRUTH that stands before us is OBAMA," as two dozen guys I saw at the Democratic Convention did, puts you at the center of Crazyville.
To his credit, Obama has done little to encourage this frenzy, at least since the election. He's all ironic detachment. Yet somehow that aloofness calls forth more reckless declarations of love from the besotted.
It should go without saying that plenty of strong Obama supporters are not getting carried away. But they're not the ones setting the tone. The soprano Renée Fleming recently sang an Obamafied Christmas carol: "In the bleak midwinter, at the Christmas feast, a family leaves Chicago and travels to the East ..." The original starred the Christ child. This fever will break because that's what fevers do. Its sufferers are probably harmless. They sure can be creepy, though.