Medical research has revealed that placebos can have as much effect on people as the real thing, particularly for so-called “subjective disorders”, like depression, anxiety, or irritable bowel syndrom.
It got me thinking: what is Barack Obama except an outlandishly elaborate political placebo? His high-blown rhetoric and promise of change is the elixir of dreams, the pregnant hope-mobile for the soul. Who cares if it lacks substance? Who cares if he’s going to be unable to enact change or cash-in that hope? Right now, he is the political placebo of first-choice.
Placebos depend on deliberate passivity on the part of the recipient, where they trust their care to a powerful individual with authority. But like all placebos, the effect wears off when you know it’s a placebo. Obama’s campaign is riding the first wave of optimism – that stage when you’ve just received the first dose of the new drug and before you can even contemplate that it’s a fake.
Can his placebo trick carry him all the way to the general election in November? Possibly. Can his political placebo solve some of America’s problems? Quite probably he can start to heal some subjective wounds, cure some ills in the body politic. But, to carry the analogy further, placebos don’t work well for objective disorders like a broken leg, cancer, or diabetes. Obama will likely have to confront the intractable, hard problems of the war in Iraq, the budget deficit, a possible recession, and terrorism for real. His rhetoric and pomp won’t solve those problems.
America is like a hospital patient desperate to believe in the first person to offer them a cure. What happens when they buy it and discover it’s a fake?