Barack Obama and the Palliative Power of Hope

I have long been interested in the debate which continues in both the medical and mental health communities about the affect of hope on healing. Some would argue that honesty about a patient’s condition and prognosis must trump the understandable desire to give him a reason to believe in the possibility of a cure. Others say that depriving a patient of hope, even when the situation is, in reality, dire, also deprives her of the will to live, and thus can hasten death itself.

I’ve thought a lot about this issue during the past week, as Barack Obama assumed the mantle of leadership as the 44th President of the United States. I cannot recall a time in recent memory- at least since the early days of FDR’s presidency, which I know only through the study of history- when an entire country pinned its hopes on the person occupying the Oval Office the way it is now. Across party lines, even those who didn’t vote for Barack Obama are praying for him to succeed in his efforts to rescue our economy from what ails it.

I have come to believe that if President Obama is ultimately successful in this enormous challenge, it will be because of his ability to make us hopeful- to believe in the possibility that the future is not lost for us and our children and grandchildren. I believe that he was elected because he was able to make people believe in the very possibility of hope, using his great oratorical skills to literally lift the national spirit with his words. It was not his resume that earned him people’s respect. The resume was nothing extraordinary. It was the power of his spirit that captured the national imagination, proving conclusively how very badly people want to believe, even as the economic news seems to get worse every day.

I’ve heard more than a few people who understand the economics of recession say that with all that the federal government is doing to free up credit and strengthen the financial system, at this point the real issue with our economy is psychological, not fiscal. When the economy is this bad, even people who have jobs and money are fearful of what the future might hold for them, and therefore reluctant to spend. And once the psychology of recession sets in, fiscal recession itself becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s about where we are right now. That’s what we face.

If this is indeed the case, then maybe- just maybe- we’ve elected the right person for the job at the right time. We need a national “uplifter” more than a “decider.” And Barack Obama is one of the best “uplifters” I’ve ever heard speak. Those of us who speak for a living listen to a man like him and understand the power of his oratory. It is awesome, and inspiring.

What I am praying for is that the power of his oratory be but the beginning of what he has to offer us. The speeches will sound hollow if they are not matched with the skillful implementation of programs to help us emerge from this morass that we are in. I choose to believe in hope. And I hope I’m right…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.